The early morning sun shone on the watered fields where men and women bent to plant the crop that feeds the other half of the world. The stalks were individually placed in the ground with care in hopes the rice would sprout and grow. And I hadn’t liked rice until I arrived in Taiwan two months ago…ha! I looked out the train window at the neatly organized fields. From a distance they resembled green patchwork quilts.
I came to do missionary work for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was on my way to be with a native companion who spoke very little English. I just knew this would be the perfect opportunity to learn Mandarin. I had heard my new area, Chia-yi, was difficult and I would let her know I was up for it, even if I had to wake up at 5:00 every morning to memorize discussions or get every member in the ward doing missionary work.
As the train moved into the station my head jerked abruptly a few times. On the ramp I saw Sister Chen standing with two elders. I had seen her before at conferences and meetings, but we had not exchanged more than the usual get-to-know-you questions. I looked at her and wondered if we would ever really be able to communicate about our goals and ideas for our work. I knew this was another trial; I was a gifted gabber in English. Sister Chen was quite small and I would look like an oversized basketball player with her. I glanced out the window at the rice fields on the other side of the train—so many newly planted rice stalks.
As I stepped off the train, I could see the elders chattering and writing down new characters and words they picked up from Sister Chen. I walked toward the little group and noticed Sister Chen bending down to speak to a little Chinese girl. The elders threw their heads back and laughed at what she said to the child.
I looked a little closer at my new companion. She had long black hair that reached to her waist and a small elfish face that seemed to wear a continual smile. She didn’t hug me like a lot of new American companions would. She only softly said, “I know I’m going to learn a lot from you, Sister Snider.” I didn’t understand the entire sentence and just looked at her in a puzzled way. Sister Chen smiled and repeated the sentence a little slower—much slower than when she had been speaking with the elders.
The man in charge of the baggage came up to us and started pointing his finger to the west and then to the east. He had a distinct Peking dialect. I just nodded, pretending I understood. After he finished his little talk, he stuck his head out, his black eyes peering at me. I guess he wanted me to answer him. Sister Chen had been listening from a short distance and then gave him the reply I suppose he desired.
As we pedaled on our bicycles to our new home, Sister Chen said, “Sister Snider,” (I delighted in her pronunciation of r‘s) “if you don’t understand someone, just tell him to repeat his question.”
I looked over to her and wanted to say, “But you don’t know how it is to feel like a child again when you’re a senior in college!” I looked at her crooked smile and her long black hair streaming in the breeze.
I answered her the best I could in Chinese. “O.K., I’ll ask them next time to say it again.”
When we reached the apartment, she told me I could put all my things away. As I folded each article of clothing and packed my clothes and accessories into the closet, I saw that my possessions took up three-fourths of the room. I thought about the goals and achievements I had in mind for this place. My head was whirling with ideas. We could have a visiting teaching convention, a welfare fair, begin a ward choir…I ran down the stairs and yelled, ‘Tm finished.” Sister Chen looked up at me as she repeatedly rinsed the rice and said, “Do you want to do anything else?”
“No, I’m finished. Uh…I want to talk with you and decide what we’re going to accomplish, you know, make some goals.” Was this ever going to be frustrating! I wanted to talk to someone, anyone, about my ideas. Could our companionship ever transcend our differences?
She looked at my distraught face and said, “Sister Snider, go get a dictionary and then we’ll talk.”
I raced up the stairs and retrieved a pencil, paper, and dictionary so I could begin to write all the words I needed to express myself.
As we sat and ate, I began to search the dictionary for the words I wanted to say. Yes, here it is. “Choir” is changshrban. “Sister Chen, what do you think about organizing a changshrban for the ward? The whole time I’ve been here I’ve wanted to hear a choir like at home. Understand? And I have this other plan…” I looked over at her. She didn’t say anything; she just continued to slowly put the rice to her mouth with her chopsticks.
“Sister Snider, the Chinese people have this saying that is called Man Man Lai. It means that everything must come one step at a time.” Her dainty brown hands then demonstrated how steps start at the bottom—and slowly ascend. She proceeded to tell me a story about a house, and the main emphasis of the story, from what I could gather, was that a person can’t start building a house without nails. I guess she thought I had forgotten the “nails” in our work. I looked at her and knew she was right—the vision of our work would take place one step at a time. Sometimes I really couldn’t understand why I’d been sent to Taiwan. I was so un-Chinese—automatically forgetting that scaffolding needed nails.
“Uh, Sister Chen,” I looked up the word nails and said, “I’ll try not to forget the nails anymore.”
Sister Chen and I had been together a few weeks. I felt that she really liked me. When I first met my new zone leaders, she emphatically told them I would speak Mandarin better than they did in a month or two. I wanted to crawl underneath the chair. They were both reading books in Chinese characters. They looked at me and said, “Oh?” Although I was a little embarrassed, I was inwardly warmed that she wanted to help me so much.
At the beginning of our companionship, we identified some areas that needed to be worked on immediately. A ward choir could wait until people understood some basic principles. Sister Chen and I were teaching many members, leaders, inactive members, and investigators. We worked well together and people could perceive our close companionship. A few people we taught even told me we looked alike. I don’t know why they conceived that idea, but I guess we didn’t appear like a basketball player and china doll as I thought we would.
One night as we returned home on the bus from a busy day of teaching, the traffic was especially heavy. As we waited to run across the street, Sister Chen reached out and took my hand. I felt a little awkward standing on the street corner holding my companion’s hand, but she made me feel that she needed me—just like I needed her in order to get from place to place.
The days passed quickly while I was with Sister Chen. As we pedaled our bikes around Chia-yi, I noticed the rice plants were no longer individually spaced and distributed. The fields looked as if they were well-watered golf courses-the stalks had grown close together. There were not any farmers in the fields planting the stalks; they were only watering the plants so the rice would not perish in the sun.
“Sister Chen,” I said to her one morning as we pedaled through the outskirts of the town, “Tell me about China.” We had just taught a woman from Peking and I wanted to know about that isolated country. The culture was beginning to intrigue me to a great degree. Sister Chen was telling me to use my heart to understand her people and her method was working.
She turned and looked at me a little longer than usual and then said, “You really want to learn?”
I nodded enthusiastically and I think she believed me. On our preparation day I bought a map of China and she gradually began to tell me about each province. She related stories about people who danced on horses and told about places where watermelon was plentiful. She spoke of spacious palaces where emperors lived with their wives in lavish splendor and wealth. She didn’t leave out the stories of her own people ‘s province-a land where rice and fish had become sparse. She constantly reminded me that the history of my country was only two hundred years old. China’s history spun a continuous tale of resplendent and fallen dynasties which lasted five thousand years. I also learned many words from those conversations.
Although I felt myself becoming more and more captivated by the people, I still occasionally felt a longing to speak in my own language to someone other than the elders. One day I was particularly depressed about the Mandarin language. As I said before, I was the talkative type who enjoyed telling stories and jokes, but sometimes I still could not find the words in Chinese to express what I wanted to tell the people. I knew it was idiotic, but I compared myself to Sister Chen and the way she could teach. I didn’t want to tell her my feelings because I knew she would say, “Man Man Lai” or “Remember the nails.” We usually laughed quite a bit during the day, but I knew very well that today I was being unusually solemn.
Sister Chen finally approached me at the end of the day when we were riding home from an appointment. She gently asked me, “What’s the matter, Sister Snider?” Most days I was able to talk to her about my feelings, but today I didn’t really want to tell her. Sometimes it required too much effort to reach into the depths of my heart and explain myself to someone-especially in Mandarin.
I just said, “I’m O.K.”
She then said, “You’re my best friend. Tell me your feelings. I want to hear.”
I couldn’t believe she said I was her best friend. I knew for some reason she had always had a particular fondness for me, but it was the first time she had ever really said she cared for me. We had lived together for two months and she had done everything for me: helped me progress in the language, taught me her people’s culture, bought me little items she knew I would enjoy, and subtly trained me to attain the goals I had set for myself.
“O.K.,” I said, “I want to teach the people. I know I shouldn’t compare myself to you, but I get frustrated with this process. Will the harvest ever come? I still feel like a small child when I speak Mandarin.” I looked over at her and said, “Well, maybe a little older than that.”
I can’t remember exactly what she said, but I do remember feeling that this Chinese girl really loved this impatient American girl. I had always been fond of her too, but when I knew that she considered me such a close friend, my feelings for her became more deeply rooted.
For several weeks we had been looking forward to a zone conference that would be held in a secluded bamboo forest—an opportunity for a diversion. The entire day of the zone conference Sister Chen would not speak with me. Each time I asked her if there was anything wrong, she shook her head. Everyone knows the oriental expression “lose face.” Well, at the zone conference I lost face. A few people even asked me if we were having companionship problems. What could I say?—it surely appeared that way.
When we reached the train station in Chia-yi, she briskly walked to the area where our bikes were kept. I thought she would ride home alone, but she waited for me at a distance while I untangled my bike from all the hundreds of bikes in the racks. I tried to hurry and unlock it, wondering if I was still her best friend.
As we passed the Chinese temples and heard the people worshipping their ancestors in wailing tones, I confidently raised my voice a little higher to be heard above the cries. “Well, are you going to talk with me now?”
“Then when, may I ask?”
“At home. We’ll talk at home,” she said, then pedaled her bike a little faster.
After we arrived at our apartment, we sat down on the couch to talk. We had had our small misunderstandings before—mostly when we had different ways of looking at our work. “O.K.” I was acting as the initiator. “All day long you have deliberately ignored me. I have no idea why you are acting this way. ”
She looked surprised, then perplexed. “You don’t know why?”
“No,” I said naively, “I really can’t understand your actions or interpret what little you’ve said to me today.” She stared at me for a few seconds and then softly said, “I now understand that you aren’t the person I thought you were today. You see, today I didn’t have any money and I knew I had already told you I was waiting for some money from my sister. You were talking to everyone and I had to ask the zone leader for the train fare. ‘ ‘ And then she expressed the opinion of her culture: “You see, Sister Snider, I feel that if you really love someone, you will be able to intuitively perceive they are having a problem. I was hurt because I thought if you really loved me, you could have seen I needed some money today.”
I looked at her and said, “But why didn’t you ask me? You knew I had some extra money.” I couldn’t understand why she had been hurt by such an insignificant incident.
Sister Chen then repeated what she had just told me. ” In the Chinese way of thinking, a person who really loves and understands another person will be able to see when that person needs something. ”
I thought about what she had said. I remembered the many conversations we had had when she knew I was frustrated or the times when I had admired one of her possessions and she automatically told me it belonged to me. On that day I came to the conclusion that Chinese people use their hearts more, or a developed sixth sense; Westerners generally expect words if anyone needs something from them. I had not particularly desired or expected my feelings and even my dependency to grow and mature in our companionship. Nevertheless, her subtle Chinese ways were grafting my heart with hers.
A few weeks after the zone conference, I was transferred to Thailand to work in a refugee camp, a pioneer project for the Church. I worked with Americans in the camp, but I missed Sister Chen intensely. A few times I asked myself why I had ever let her cultivate feelings I had very seldom allowed to be nurtured before. Although there were some Chinese people in the camp, I continually felt an internal agony at the loss of that small Chinese girl in Taiwan who understood me.
A few weeks after I arrived in Thailand, I was riding in the van to the camp, staring out the windows at the Thai rice fields. The summer season had come and gone; the farmers were gathering a plentiful harvest. I reflected on more familiar rice fields in Taiwan where Sister Chen would see the harvest. I could not help but think of a harvest we had shared together. It had been a long, draining season, a season when I had seen changes in the people we taught and had learned to husband new feelings in my heart. All the impatient pacing and waiting for the harvest had been worth it—even if I wouldn’t see her for a long time.
The van pulled into the camp past the Thai soldiers who guarded the front gate. I could see some of my Chinese students slowly walking toward the classroom. One older woman and her daughter caught my attention. The daughter had long black hair that fell to her waist. As I stepped out of the van, the girl waved at me. I smiled in return, knowing a new season was beginning.