Sam’s diminutive parents stood to greet me. By contrast I towered over them! As it is, Sam is not very tall but he does stand a few inches taller than his parents. With smiles and greetings, they urged me to put my bag down and make myself at home. They were just as excited by my visit as Sam was.
Sam’s father is a tailor by trade and his mother helps out. Their customer flow is steady in spite of a lack of advertisement. It seems everyone in town knows about the tailor at house number 230. Even though customers came in regularly, Sam’s father took time out to tell me that he had booked me a hotel room because his home did not have a Western toilet. He feared I would be uncomfortable staying in their humble quarters. I did not have the chance to reassure them that I would be perfectly happy to stay at their home, and perhaps that is a good thing. I did not wish to make them uncomfortable in any way.
We spent the afternoon talking in between customers. Sam did have to translate some, and he and I spent a good deal of time talking as well. Sam’s mother made sure that I had something to eat at all times: a plate of nuts was proffered, some fruit, a glass of tea. At one point Sam asked if I had to go to the bathroom and we went to the hotel a few doors down to use their facilities. My room was not yet ready, but the hotel staff let us use a room that was ready. How nice! After regaining a measure of personal comfort, Sam and I went for a short walk around their farmer’s market.
When we came back the table was set and dinner was ready. The table was laden with a simmering fish stew indigenous to the region, as well as fried chicken, roasted duck, pork and vegetables, preserved fish chunks and fish balls. Over dinner our conversation really flowed. Sometimes Sam’s parents had a hard time understanding me and at times I was completely lost on what they were saying. Admittedly it was my fault because my Chinese is just not that good.
In China it is common to exchange vital statistic information such as age, salary and family data. I could navigate that pretty well. Sam translated the more difficult conversational gambits. When Sam’s mother found out I was divorced she swore she would find me a Chinese man. I did joke that he would have to be very tall, and much laughter ensued.
Sam’s parents grew up in an era where there simply was not enough food. There were days when they did not get to eat at all, even. Sam explained to me that, for them, there is never enough food and the meals they prepare for guests are lavish affairs. Especially foreign guests! Sam told me he had asked his mother to fix more vegetables to go with the dinner but she refused, saying that foreigners like to eat meat. Thus the meal was mostly meat based. And delicious.
We toasted each other repeatedly with Bai Jiu. Sam’s father, seated to my right, made sure my bowl stayed full with choice portions of chicken or duck. I in turn placed chunks of meat in his bowl. In China, one shows affection and respect by offering up choice morsels in that manner. I tricked Sam’s mom by sharing the rest of my Bai Jiu with her. The men were done eating and drinking; she and I were toasting each other. Having learned the art of drinking Bai Jiu without getting drunk (take very small sips), I still had plenty in my glass so I poured most of it in her glass. She called me sneaky! But she laughed and drank it anyway. That is another Chinese custom: if you have and someone else doesn’t, you share.
I offered to help clean up after dinner and was waved away. Instead, Sam, his father and I went for a walk. Sam’s sister looked after Baby Erica while we went, and his mother cleaned up.
Watching Sam and his father walk hand in hand and talking I had time to reflect on the love so evident between the members of this family. Like gossamer threads it binds them close, woven with a mutual respect and admiration. Sam had told me that, when he got married his father contracted construction on his home to build another level for him and Penny, and the child that would eventually come. He also gave Sam and his bride a substantial chunk of money to buy their own apartment in the city. All of this from a humble tailor whose own life had been fraught with hardship. I have no idea what father and son talked about as they walked together, first holding hands and then father supporting son because Sam’s ankle grew more painful with each step, and I don’t need to know. It was such a beautiful sight, to see these two men in such harmony and cadence with each other. I felt honored to witness it.
Unfortunately Sam’s ankle started paining him terribly and they decided to take a taxi home. The men sat in the back and I scrunched myself into the front seat – have I told you that Chinese taxis are relatively small? Within minutes we were back at #230, and we decided to call it a night. Off I went to the hotel, after admonishing my friend to sleep with his ankle propped up and bidding my gracious hosts goodnight. I fell into bed at 9:30PM and got the best night’s sleep I’ve gotten in a long time.
The next morning Sam and I went to breakfast. His mother, an early riser, had already eaten. His father was tending to customers’ orders. He looked up, busy and harried, explaining that he could not be a good host because he had a lot of business to take care of. I, not wanting to be any trouble, assured him that I was not mad at all about it.
Sam’s damaged ankle was indeed better that morning and we went for a much longer walk. He showed me many things about where he grew up, but mostly he showed his heart. He confessed that, when he returns home he does not necessarily hunt down any school chums; what he likes to do is hold his baby girl and look out on the street at the people passing by. He made sure I saw and felt the excitement of the people for their upcoming holiday, even calling me outside when a store across the street let off firecrackers to signal their grand opening.
How time flies when you are so fortunate as to find yourself in that peaceful place that you share with good friends! All too soon it was afternoon and time to enjoy another meal. This time, Mom had prepared dumplings, the traditional dish for luck and prosperity at New Years. The leftovers from the night before also graced the table. Unfortunately Sam and I were both still full from the bowl of noodles we had for breakfast, but Mom was not going to let us get away that fast. For this meal, Sam’s sister’s future mother in law joined us and again I saw the perpetuity of life among them. The future in-laws chatted like old friends, Mom made sure my dumpling bowl was kept full and Dad led the toasting. Again I tricked Mom by sharing my Bai Jiu, while Sam and his sister fed Baby Erica. Throughout the meal, customers came in to drop off their orders.
What? It is 2:30 already? I almost did not want to leave, and indeed Dad said I was welcome to stay another day, something I could not do. I had to get back to Wuhan and make my preparations for my trip to Xi’an. However, Sam’s parents would not let me go until I promised them that I would return. In fact, they threatened me by saying if I don’t return we will not be friends! That is a promise that I find easy to keep, and I gave them my word sincerely. These are people you would want for a friend, simply for their strength and honesty of spirit.
As I grabbed my bag and fought my tears, Dad asked forgiveness for not seeing me off at the bus station. His older sister has cancer and she is in her final days; he had to go with his brother to tend to her. After everything he did to make me feel welcome, I would feel slighted at his leaving to tend to his sick sister? No apology needed, Dad. Please go and take care of her. We will see each other again.