IT STARTED WITH WENXIA

WenXia (pronounced wen-sha) is my Chinese friend. My longtime woman friend, Pat Spencer, got us together. Pat and I have attended the same Gentle Motions exercise class every Thursday morning for several years. Each week Pat convenes spouses of University of Florida students and visiting scholars from around the world so they can practice speaking English. I was so impressed by her stories of this international group that I finally said I would like to do that, but on a smaller scale, with one woman, preferably from China, who could meet me in my home. Pat wisely matched me with WenXia and arranged for us to meet.

On the chosen day, Pat and I both drove to Oaks Mall after exercise class and met with WenXia, who had been driven there by her husband, Peng. We met in the food court where we four could sit at a table and talk.  I was pleased to learn that Peng (pronounced Pong) would drive WenXia to my house each time and would stay and participate in the conversation. We decided on Saturdays at 1:00 p.m. as our weekly meeting time. The date was August 18, 2016. I knew from the beginning that I would enjoy their company, but was not expecting such a deep bond to develop. After a few months they were like part of my family.

WenXia and Peng described their hometown of Hangzhou, a famous and beautiful city where President Obama was meeting with other world leaders for the G20 about that time, September, 2016. Using their smart phones and laptops, WenXia and Peng showed pictures of West Lake in Hangzhou where Classical Chinese music and dance were performed one night for Barack Obama and other world leaders. They told us the legend of the white snake and, using their electronic devices, showed photos of the Leifeng Pagoda. We discussed what was done in advance to reduce smog for the G-20 event. Manufacturing was temporarily shut down in the area to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality.

Peng, a Ph.D in mechanical engineering at Hangzhou Dianzi University, was doing research at University of Florida during his year here. His project was to design methods to stabilize a micro mirror by increasing or reducing electric heat through the mirror’s legs to control tilt. One possible application of Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) might be in spectroscopy, endoscopy, gastroscopy, or colonoscopy.

Each week WenXia and Peng would read one of my memoir stories posted to my blog, then come prepared to ask questions about what they had read. Also, Peng taught us many Chinese legends, and frequently sent me classical Chinese poetry. I teased Peng that all the poems were heartbreaking and made me cry. One example is two geese that had flown as a pair all their lives. When one died the other chose not to live, and joined his partner in her grave. This sad story is all told in lovely, heart wrenching, poetic language.  

WenXia and Peng liked to sit on the floor around my coffee table using their laptops. When my son, Eric, was involved the three of them sat on the floor with their three lap tops on the coffee table. Pat would attend whenever she could, and she and I sat in our rocking chairs watching and laughing. One day, amazingly, they talked about milk for an hour or two. The conversation led from WenXia’s job as accountant for a baby formula company, to homogenized, skim, and buttermilk to my growing up on raw milk, still warm from the cow, on a farm in Tennessee. When a geography question arose, Eric or WenXia would run to get the globe from across the room and point out the location.

WenXia and Peng brought many gifts. One is a silk scroll depicting the river, river boats, bridge, and human activity in the old city of Bianjing (now KaiFeng). This famous work of art was created during the Song Dynasty. The artist, Zhang Zeduan, 1085 – 1145, created this scroll using pen and ink. The point of the pen would have been made of horse, pig, or rabbit hair. The original scroll is displayed in The Forbidden City, Peking, and is about eighteen feet long. My lovely gift is a reproduction of a four foot section of the original. It is a treasure which I proudly show to guests.

Other gifts included a silk scarf, delicately cut paper designs, a birthday noodle, homemade dumplings, and special teas. WenXia and Peng gifted Eric with a handsome navy-blue silk tie in a gift box which included an actual silkworm cocoon. They told us many interesting facts about the silkworm.

Once, when my daughter, Clea, her husband, John, and their teenage daughter, Anna, were here from Maryland, Clea prepared a boiled shrimp dinner for all of us, including WenXia and Peng. It is a Macurdy tradition to place a bowl of hot boiled shrimp in the middle of the dining table which has been covered with newspapers. Paper plates are used. Each person peels their own shrimp and piles empty shells directly onto the newspaper. Crackers, raw vegetables, mayonnaise, and cocktail sauce are provided. My husband’s parents started the tradition and much was made of who created the biggest pile of empty shrimp shells. It was a casual good time and it was nice to see WenXia and Peng interact with my daughter’s family. Clean up is easy. Just roll up newspaper, paper plates, and shrimp shells into one wad and throw it in the trash.

On a different occasion, my grandson, Stephen, was visiting me and making a documentary about my life. He took photos of us talking together in my living room. WenXia and Peng very graciously invited Stephen to visit them in China and stay a year if he wanted to. Stephen replied that he would like to accept, maybe for two weeks.

When my ninety year old brother-in-law, Dudley, and his daughter, Dotty, were visiting me from Nashville, they met WenXia and Peng, who had some difficulty understanding Dudley due to his strong Tennessee accent.

WenXia and Peng like to fish. They showed photos of themselves fishing from the dock at Ft. Clinch State Park on Amelia Island, where my husband’s family has a lot of history. They also told about fishing from the dock at Cedar Key where a pelican swallowed their bait, hook, line, sinker and bobber! Local fishermen were throwing away small fish, but learned that WenXia and Peng would take them home for making soup. As a result, WenXia and Peng happily came home with many fish given to them by local Cedar Key fishermen who only kept the bigger fish.

One day, I went into the new Bass Pro Shop with WenXia and Peng just so they could see all the merchandise. They enjoyed identifying all the fishing gear and saying the English words. We looked at guns, knives, boots, boats, hats, gloves, and other clothing, while practicing the English words. 

WenXia, Peng, and I arranged to see a performance of Little Women on stage at The Community Playhouse. I could have met them there, but they insisted on coming to pick me up. They wanted to drive me and use their GPS. On the way, at each turn, I would say, for example, “turn right at the light”, their GPS would say it in Chinese, and WenXia and Peng would repeat after me, saying it in English. We were amused and entertained. I was sitting in the back seat with WenXia when she gently picked up my hand and commented “Nice little hand”. This is a cherished memory.

On Christmas Day, 2016, they joined me for Christmas dinner at The Village, a retirement center. After the meal, I gave them a tour of the building which includes a well-equipped fitness center. Peng enjoyed trying out the different exercise machines. Afterwards, we toured the Santa Fe College campus and walked around taking pictures. By the large flag, WenXia set her camera on timer, and posed the three of us together, making a memorable snapshot of that Christmas Day.

In January 2017, WenXia and Peng had to sell their car in preparation for their February departure back to China. When they no longer had a car, either Eric or I would drive to their apartment near Biven’s Arm and bring them to my house so we could have our visit. Goodbyes were difficult. As they hope to return in two years for another visiting scholar year, they asked if we could store their bedding until their return. The answer was yes, of course, so their bedding is waiting for them in my guest room. There were tears all around when we said goodbye, especially between WenXia and me. Her parting words were “You’ve helped me so much”.

Though they are back home in China, we visit by WeChat video on Saturday mornings at 8:00 a.m. my time, 8:00 p.m. their time. Their adorable four year old Cici greets me with “Good morning, Grandma Pattie!” and I love that. Cici had stayed in China with Peng’s mother, sister, and brother-in-law while her parents were in America. Cici is studying English in pre-school. Her Chinese name is Guo, but her English teacher asked the parents to give her an American name. When WenXia and Peng asked me to suggest names, I offered Lily, April, and Cici. Without hesitation they chose Cici, and it does suit her.

Cici reads me children’s books in English and sings songs for me in English. Peng shares with me his teaching, writing, and publishing struggles. WenXia once WeChatted with me from her job-training location at Guangzhou near Hong Kong where she learned new software for her accounting job with RiFeng, a Canadian company that makes PVC plumbing pipe. On a different occasion, she WeChatted from her parents’ home in Hunan Province, and I was able to tell her mother that we like WenXia very much. Mother and daughter stood side by side in the video and they look very much alike. Both are quite beautiful.

Now, a new relationship has begun with LiangLiang, a new UF visiting scholar, his wife, XianYan, and their nine year old daughter, Gina. We are just a few weeks into getting acquainted with each other. They are personal friends of WenXia and Peng who they have known for many years in China. I expect we will have many good visits with LiangLiang, XianYan, and Gina before they return to China in October 2018. Perhaps I will also get to know whatever Chinese visiting scholar follows LiangLiang. Then, not too long following their departure, we can hope WenXia and Peng will return to America, this time with Cici.

Obviously, this experience greatly enriches my life, and with very little effort on my part. I welcome them into my home and we talk. Whether it be about the lovely gifts they bring from China, or about my memoir stories, the goal is to give them a chance to practice their English in a relaxed everyday setting. They tell us of their travels to Key West, their purchases at the outlet stores in Orlando, their time at Disney World, and their daily activities here in Gainesville. Using their smart phones, they show photos of where they live in China.

We believe we have a winning arrangement which is good for all involved. I know it benefits me in my old age. How nice, as I approach age ninety, to surround myself with these bright, attractive, eager to learn, young folks from a different culture. I like to think, in some small way, our cultural exchange will lead to more global understanding.

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s