October first is Chinese National Day, and it is the official day to begin wearing long underwear. It doesn’t matter whether it is cold or not, on October first everyone north of the Yellow River dons extra layers of clothes. People are expected to remain layered up from October first through May first, and one’s underclothing is free game for speculation and inquiry among students, faculty, and strangers. It was not uncommon to have elderly women peer into my face and ask if I was wearing long underwear, and even to have them pull up my pant legs to prove it. National Day is celebrated by giving students a week off.
“One week,” Mr. Li explained, as we sat in the Foreign Affairs Office, “is seven days. It is not nine days. It is seven.” He ticked them off on his fingers, “Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday… so on Saturday of next week, you will go back to work.” I looked at Curtis in surprise. Mr. Li stared at us coolly. “Have a nice vacation.”
But if the foreign teachers thought it a bit of trickery that a vacation should be cut short by a whole weekend, the students did not. The students were weary and in need of a break.
For our seven days off, Curtis, Laura, and I joined three teachers from another city for a trip into the countryside to visit Xiahe, a Tibetan village six hours from Lanzhou. As we boarded the small bus that would take us out of the city, the manager of the bus line waddled up to us with a stack of papers to sign.
“What are these?” I asked Curtis as I scrawled “An Xin” on several sheets.
“Oh,” he said. “It’s for insurance.”
“Insurance! That’s comforting.”
“Well,” he said with a tight-lipped smile, “it’s not for us; it’s for them. By signing, we promise not to hold the bus company liable for any harm.”
An hour later I understood, as our bus careened out of the city and onto the open road, its horn bellowing as it zoomed back and forth across the double yellow line.
Sight-seeing is a reciprocal agreement in rural China. By embarking on a trip to experience the backwaters of the East, you agree also to provide a sight for the residents to see and enjoy. Nothing was more amusing the residents of Xiahe that day than our group of befuddled foreigners far from our cities of residence. At every corner in that small town where we paused to consult our expensive guidebooks, tiny men and tinier women wiggled into our huddle to stare at the maps with us and watch our faces. They looked at us and laughed, then looked at each other and pointed to our books and laughed some more.
Xiahe is one of the most revered seats of Tibetan Buddhism outside the legal boundaries of Tibet. We walked slowly around the aging Labrang Temple, passing devout pilgrims who fell on their faces every two steps and prayed to the empty wind. One brittle woman with hundreds of wrinkles stared at us intently as we walked by. She began muttering. Hobbling towards us, she stretched out grimy, withered fingers and began stroking Laura’s curls. I was inexpressibly proud of my teammate. She barely winced.
“Mien!” muttered the woman.
“Noodles!” I burst out as she hobbled away. “She said ‘noodles!’ She thinks your hair looks like noodles!”
“She did NOT say ‘noodles’” Laura said.
“But it sounded like noodles!” I crowed, trying to keep my laughter to myself.
We only stayed in Xiahe a few days. To return to Lanzhou, we piled into another bus like the one that had brought us there. I deposited myself in the seat just behind the door, which commanded an excellent view of the front of the bus and the winding road beyond.
More people clambered on after us, and a woman whose one-year-old son was sleeping in her arms sat in the seat across the aisle from me. We careened down the road for about an hour and a half, dodging carts, bicycles, and lumbering trucks, stopping to let passengers on and off, and passing slower traffic. By the time we hit the main highway the bus was mostly empty. My eyes drifted from the edge of the road on my right, where a rocky gully sloped twelve or more feet down to a weed-filled ditch, to the scenery on our left, where a slight bank of dirt marked the edge of the road, and trees and boulders dotted the terrain. As China flowed quickly by, my thoughts hurried on even faster, back to Lanzhou.
Teaching was going well. Every so often I asked Brian, the monitor in my writing class, “On a scale of one to five, with one being completely dense and unintelligible, and five being clear, cohesive, and dynamic, how well did I teach today?” For the first several weeks he gave me solemn twos and threes, but in October he triumphantly (and, I think, with much deliberation as to whether I properly deserved it) gave me a 4. The windows in Brian’s corner classroom were broken, bringing cold drafts seeping in from the west and back out the north. I learned to write on the blackboard with my gloves on.
My secret Bible study had found a solid place in my weekly schedule. In addition to the six girls, Molly, and Charity who came faithfully every week, I had begun studying the New Testament with Emily, the girl I had met that first night at English corner. I learned that she was Muslim. Those studies were a source of tremendous joy to me, even as I struggled to find ways to communicate. I began to realize, with growing humility, that anyone could do what I was doing in China—anyone willing to give up life at home and come east. My Bible school training and master’s degree in English had led me to believe I was particularly well-suited for this assignment, but in fact they sometimes impeded God’s work. As I grappled to understand that, I began earnestly praying that God would raise up more workers for the white fields of China.
Weekly office hours had exploded, bringing floods of students to my apartment, where we talked freely about the Lord. Students whom I invited at English Corner came often for extra practice. Molly came every week, and was a fearless evangelist among her peers. Two of the girls in my study group, Eva, and a girl called June, had made professions of faith and were now struggling to live out their new lives in Christ. June had begun dating James.. I had begun visiting Wu Laoshi, the manager of the photo copy shop, several times a week, and sitting with his clerks, practicing Chinese, while my copies were being made. Fruitful relationships were sprouting up all around me.
Suddenly my thoughts bounced back to the bumpy road slithering along the rough edge of the ravine. My bus had veered into the left lane to pass a little car, and my eyes were arrested by an oncoming bus on the highway. It was making splendid time on its journey toward Xiahe, barreling headlong at us.
Both drivers laid hard on their horns. Our driver began yanking on the steering wheel, but the bus stayed where it was. The driver’s hands flailed in the air as the ticket-taker, standing next to him, pulled hard on the wheel, trying to move the bus back into the right lane. The wheel did not budge. The woman across the aisle from me screamed and braced herself against the seat in front of her, throwing her body over her sleeping son. I realized, with a dull feeling of fear, that there was no seat in front of me, there was only the stairwell, and several feet ahead of me, an empty steel bench.
Suddenly our bus tilted left. It leaped off the road, up the embankment, and was thundering along the rocky plain full of boulders and scraggly trees. The driver was trying to break. The oncoming bus barreled by on our right side seconds later, passing within a few feet of us. My heart was pounding as I tried to hold myself onto my seat, gripping the slippery vinyl. We slowed a little, bouncing recklessly over small rocks. The driver saw a large tree immediately in front of us and threw his arms over his face. The bus smashed into a pile of rocks, its steel sides creaking and bending as the lurch threw everyone forward.
I tried to hold tightly to my most excellent seat, but my arms were wrenched from my shoulders as I took off in glorious flight. For a moment my mind went blank. I was aware of nothing except the open air and the floor rushing below me, until I crashed hard into the front of the bus.
I was conscious, and could feel my body tingling all over. I was intensely aware of my surroundings, and realized with immense gratitude, as my face pressed against the floor, that I had not hit my head on the steel bench. From the thunderous crash further ahead of me I deduced that the bench had also sailed forward and hit the windshield. I had hit my head on a plastic transmission cover, and bashed my legs on the steps.
I lay very still in the ensuing commotion. My heightened powers of perception dulled again, and my mind felt fuzzy. I wondered if the people around me were panicking, and absently twitched my wrists to see if they would move right. Suddenly many arms and hands were pulling me, trying to lift me from the floor.
“Wait,” I mumbled. “Please wait. I’m okay. I’ll be okay.” The Chinese voices all around me were drowned out by an American one close to my ear.
“Ann,” it was Laura’s urgent voice. She was kneeling beside me. “Are you okay?”
“Oh yeah,” I said into the floor, “I’m good. Just a little banged up, that’s all.” Painfully I rolled over. I could feel warm wetness on my shins, but the blood was hidden by my jeans and my thick thermal underwear. There was mild swelling around my forehead and eyes. My glasses had tumbled off and slid under a bench. Chinese hands helped lift me into a seat, and concerned chattering foamed all around me as passengers climbed off the bus. I looked back at the seat across the aisle. The mother was still sitting there, with her little son still asleep in her arms.
Someone retrieved a stool and set it in the dirt outside for me to sit on. The ticket-taker was wrapping the driver’s upper left arm in a makeshift bandage. The front of the bus was gouged out by the rocks it had plowed through. I watched with growing surprise as vehicle after vehicle passed the scene of the accident. No one stopped. Curtis was talking with the driver. My bloody legs throbbed as I sat on the stool and my swollen head pounded. After we had waited for half an hour, the ticket-taker stepped into the road and flagged down a reluctant bus. He spoke furiously to the driver for several minutes, and then motioned for my party to come.
“You go here,” he said, indicating that we should board the other bus. There was not an empty seat on it. Six tiny camp stools, no more than ten inches high, appeared from the luggage rack and were lined up in the aisle. The passengers eyed us resentfully as we slid ourselves onto them in a long, cramped line.
“How long, do you think it will take us to get home?” I whispered.
Laura grimaced. “At least four hours. Maybe more. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Oh yeah,” I said, forcing a smile. “Never better.” I tried to keep tears from my eyes. I ignored the pain in my legs and rested my bruised head on the arm of a chair. I felt a cold flicker of self-pity. With it came a darker, more dangerous feeling: disdain for my host country. How could these people be so selfish? Why had no one stopped to help? And why would no one offer me a seat? What was it about Chinese people that made them so selfish? “God,” I prayed dismally, “I need Your strength.” His presence settled calmingly over my heart, and reminded me that we had not shown Jesus much hospitality either, when He was among us. Why should I expect to be treated better? The real problem in China was not in the culture, but in the heart. Their hearts were no different from mine.