The following essay was published in The Christian Science Monitor’s (CSM) Home Forum section in November (I believe) of 2008. I’ve sent it to the Nanjing Amity office as a contribution to the Amity Foundation’s English Teacher program, celebrating its 35th anniversary this summer. The Amity staff asked if current and former teachers would send writings of any thoughts, reflections, or stories we’d like to share for a booklet. I’ve had over 20 articles published in CSM’s The Home Forum but I’m choosing this one because the experience shared here changed forever how I viewed and interacted with those around me. I hope, after you finish reading, you also will be encouraged to open your heart to others you might have ignored before and be blessed with many unexpected friendships, just like me.
I Owe it all to Chairman Mao
Several years ago, I landed in the Chinese city of Chengdu on my way back to the smaller town where I was teaching English. Laden with a heavy suitcase, a huge backpack, and a small dog, I arrived exhausted at Chengdu’s bus station. I wasn’t looking forward to the four-hour bus ride to the Yangtze River city Luzhou.
On most of my bus trips between the two cities, I had paid no attention to the ragtag group of luggage carriers huddled in the taxi zones.
They were poor farmers from the countryside trying to supplement their income by carrying luggage.
Armed with bare muscle and a thick rope for tying bags together, they jogged after approaching taxis and tried to make eye contact with passengers who might need help. One haul was 3 yuan (45 cents). For a Chinese farmer, several hauls a day was a gold mine.
I never hired carriers. But on this occasion, I was so overburdened that I decided that the first carrier to reach my taxi was going to have my business.
That was “Chairman Mao.”
He was a small, thin man with leathery skin and had beaten his heftier competitors by sprinting agilely to the taxi door.
My luggage was heavy, and I remember thinking what a struggle it would be for this tiny man to manage it. However, he easily pulled out my suitcase with one hand and threw my backpack over his shoulder with the other.
“You’re fast!” I told him in Chinese. He smiled and led me to the ticket line.
Eventually, we made our way down the escalators and through the security check. My personal hauler hustled along, waiting for me to catch up when I fell behind. He waited for me outside the restroom, waited for me to buy travel snacks, and then gently placed my things on the floor.
My departure wasn’t for another 30 minutes so he took a seat beside me. Little Flower, my dog, came out of her carrier to position herself on my lap. The other Chinese passengers eyed our curious group: the foreigner, her big-eared Chihuahua, and a weathered Chinese man in shabby clothes. His frayed jacket had holes, and the seams of his worn sneakers were unraveling, exposing a toe.
He and I sat quietly, awkwardly. Under the scrutiny of so many eyes, we both felt very uncomfortable.
“What’s your surname?” I finally asked.
He brightened. “Mao,” he replied.
“Mao? Like Chairman Mao?” I asked for clarification.
During the next half-hour we chatted. He was 50 years old. He and his wife were farmers on the outskirts of the city. They had three children, one grown son who was a taxi driver and a teenage son and daughter. He had a sister in Luzhou. He came to the bus station every day to carry luggage. On a good day, he could make up to 50 yuan ($6) but mostly, it was less than that. Some days, it was nothing. There were too many other haulers, and many Chinese carried their own things.
When the bus bound for Luzhou pulled into the station, Chairman Mao grabbed my things and made sure they were safely tucked away in the luggage compartment underneath the bus. I handed him a 10 yuan note, the equivalent of $1.50. He adamantly shook his head and thrust it back into my hands.
“Too much! Too much!,” he insisted.
“No,” I told him firmly. “My luggage is very heavy. You waited 30 minutes. You must take it.”
After a bit more fuss, I won.
He gratefully accepted my offering, then waved goodbye as I climbed aboard with my dog.
I have taken many weekend trips to Chengdu since that first meeting. Rain or shine, there is Chairman Mao to greet me. I can easily manage my small suitcase by myself, but my friend is too quick to grab it from my hands. And I am quite happy to have his company and to talk, even if it is a struggle to get him to accept my money.
My friendship with Chairman Mao has encouraged me to form relationships with others I once ignored. I now include among my friends the homeless lady in the city square, the beggar in front of my bank, the migrant workers on my campus, and many others. Every friendship opens new doors of cultural understanding for each of us.
And I owe it all to Chairman Mao.