Three plastic bags sit in an old basket in my kitchen here in Henan Province, China.
One is full of freshly ground cornmeal. One is full of peanuts, still showing evidence of the dirt in which they were grown. The third is full of rice.
Simple foods. Basic foods. Such hard struggles to coax them from the ground. I am only beginning to understand thankfulness and appreciation for the food that is so necessary for life."
All were lovingly and carefully carried to me on crowded trains by my students returning from weekend harvesting in their hometowns.
Simple foods. Basic foods. Such hard struggles to coax them from the ground. I am only beginning to understand thankfulness and appreciation for the food that is so necessary for life.
All week long my students study English — grammar, how to speak, how to write and understand — but when the call comes from their parents to return home, they do it without questioning. They know they are needed, not merely wanted.
One day a student, who has given himself the name “Weekly,” conﬁded that he would be unable to complete a task as promised. When this conscientious student had chosen the name Weekly, he had explained, “I must get everything done in the week that is assigned and not waste time.”
However, his mother had called and asked him to come home to the Yellow River Valley to help with the rice harvest.
Weekly’s mother wants him to get a good education to escape from farming, but for now, she is caught between her need for his mind to be in college and her need for his muscles in the ﬁeld."
Weekly had recently revealed that his father had died three years earlier. Weekly couldn’t have been more than 16 at the time; his father must have been around 50 when he died, not the ﬁrst I have heard of death coming at an early age for hard-working farmers. The strain of daily struggle takes an enormous toll.
Weekly’s mother wants him to get a good education to escape from farming, but for now, she is caught between her need for his mind to be in college and her need for his muscles in the ﬁeld.
So when she asked for help, Weekly made plans to return home. Of course he would.
Courses here at Xinxiang Teacher’s College are arranged so that the same students are in every class — the group of 45 travels together from writing classes to grammar to my Oral English.
They have been in all classes together since they were freshmen. The female students share dorm rooms, as do the six males. They become a family, sharing food and water, and hopes and dreams.
Most will become teachers and return to their small villages to educate the next generation. It is not a life with much monetary reward, but there is the opportunity to do more than be worn out in the ﬁelds.
When Weekly’s male classmates heard of his mother’s need, they never questioned what they must do.
They all had class work to do, but her need came before their own.
Each knew that they could just as easily be in Weekly’s place. And so they traveled in a standing-room-only bus to the Yellow River on a Friday night after class.
They all had class work to do, but her need came before their own."
It was dark when they arrived at the village. They ate a meal that Weekly’s mother gratefully prepared and bedded down, three to a cot, to rest until ﬁrst light.
When dawn broke, his mother had already prepared rice porridge and tea. The autumn air was cool as the friends walked to the ﬁelds, took off their shoes and began to cut the rice. Chilly mud oozed between their toes, but the work soon warmed them. They laughed and told stories as they stooped to cut the knee-high rice. The sun came out and the work was more like play — until their backs began to ache.
The afternoon work was quiet. Gone were the songs and jokes as they steadily moved across the ﬁelds, cutting by hand the year’s crop. None complained, they only worked, but if their muscles could have been heard, they would have been shouting. By nightfall they slowly trudged back to the small home and washed their feet together in the basin on the ﬂoor. They helped each other soap and rinse their feet. Sleep came easily. And the following morning came all too soon. But because of their labor, Weekly’s mother would make it another year.
On Monday I saw all the students in class. They were quiet, a bit bent, but smiling. All smiling. I felt humbled when I heard their story — a story of love and care for one another, a story of communion. One reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a bit of the harvest. That is the rice that now sits on my shelf.
That was a month ago. How easy it is to forget. How painfully easy. This week’s lesson was about weddings in the West. The students listened with rapt attention to the details of American weddings — from the engagement rings to the cake, the dresses, and discussions about churches.
We held a mock wedding, and all the students were giddy and embarrassed and excited simultaneously. Then, I did the unthinkable. The wedding over, the bouquet tossed, I instructed the students to throw small handfuls of rice onto the smiling “couple.”
The young men were gracious, but I recognized their quiet disbelief. Their eyes followed the rice as it fell to the ﬂoor, wasted. They looked at me. In six pairs of tired, smiling, forgiving eyes, I experienced grace.
Ruth Leonard, an MCC worker from Columbus, Ohio, taught at Xinxiang Teacher’s College in Henan Province, China, from 2003 to 2006. She is one of more than 300 people from Canada and the U.S. who have taught in China since 1981 through MCC and Mennonite Partners in China (formerly China Educational Exchange). This reflection appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of A Common Place magazine.
April 2019 update: Our family lived in Xinxiang, Henan, China from 2003 through 2006. Our eyes were opened and our lives were expanded to include a world of people we had not known existed.
Much like the richness of a Thanksgiving meal, every day brought sights and sounds and tastes and experiences that both bombarded our senses and thrilled them. But having all of this knowledge is not without pain and bewilderment.
So many students and families shared their world with us in China. We became the students. And we are changed.
After a few years I returned to teach in China, spending semesters in Xinxiang and returning to Columbus, Ohio for the breaks. We organized a number of tour groups which brought students to America in the summers. And we have given a number of friends the opportunity to experience teaching in Xinxiang at summer camps. Teaching young children became a priority, and many study English after school, on weekends and during the summer.
The China we knew in the early 2000s has changed dramatically. Where there were small villages and fields are now universities and row after row of 30-story apartment buildings. Many if not most of the students we taught did not return to their villages; they moved to cities across China to reap the benefits of a new world economy as members of a burgeoning middle class.
In the years since when I have returned to Xinxiang, I have been welcomed joyously and with lavish quantities of food! And the rice has not been nearly so precious.
But I have never thrown rice, or anything else, at a wedding, since.