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Last week’s Christmas gathering at my house was more than a typical time of celebrating the birth of Christ, family togetherness and exchanging gifts. Now empty nesters, my wife Cheryl and I seldom have all the children home at the same time. This Christmas we also hosted a special guest and enjoyed a memorable week of cultural exchange.
Our oldest daughter, Merilee, is preparing to be a missionary and interacts with people of many foreign cultures in her work with Catholic charities and Southern Baptist missions in Louisville. Recently, through a mutual friend, she became acquainted with a 24-year-old Chinese student who has only been in the United States since August.
Andrea Zhang (her last name is pronounced like the name John with a “g” on the end) is studying Biostatistics at the University of Louisville and works in a pathology lab at the school. She hopes one day to work for a pharmaceutical company analyzing test data to help develop new drugs to combat diseases.
Upon learning that Andrea would be spending Christmas alone in her apartment while other students were going home for the holidays, Merilee asked if she could bring her friend to our house for a few days. It was not a totally new experience for us in that we had entertained a Palestinian student from Jerusalem for the Thanksgiving Day holiday a few years ago.
“I told her that since she would be staying with us that now she would not only be my friend, but that she would now have an American family and be more like a sister,” Merilee said.
Upon receiving my daughter’s invitation, Andrea responded, “I am so excited that I’m going to celebrate Christmas with your family. It is my first time to celebrate Christ. I cannot wait!”
We learned that Andrea had been raised in a home that practiced no religion. She was quite interested to learn more about the Christmas holiday and the American traditions that go with it. When she arrived at our home, she immediately expressed her sincere appreciation for our family taking her in and sharing our holiday with her.
“In China, there is a lot of competition between families and a person would not be invited into another’s home,” she explained. “If someone was to invite someone else into their home as a guest for a few days they would only do it because they expect something in return.”
Andrea grew up in Nanjing, located 186 miles west of Shanghai and about 750 miles south of Beijing, in China. Located on the Yangtze River, Nanjing is a city of nearly 7.6 million souls.
“It is so crowded in China,” she said. “Louisville is very quiet compared to Nanjing. Many Chinese call the United States ‘Meigou,’ (pronounced like may-go) which means ‘beautiful country.’ ”
She found U of L during an Internet search, she said. Based on her field of interest, U of L was the school most highly recommended.
Asked of her observations of American life so far Andrea replied she cannot believe how Americans are so far behind in mathematics.
She is an only child, explaining, “We have a policy in China that each family can only have one baby. If a family has more than one child they run the risk of financial penalty, having their job taken away or be forced to have an abortion.”
As an only child, Andrea was extremely spoiled, she said, and didn’t have to do anything for herself. Everything was done for her. When she came to the U.S. in August, she had to learn how to cook and clean for herself and do her own laundry. She keeps in touch with her parents each week through Internet videoconferences. Once she finishes her education she hopes to secure a job and remain in the United States.
Andrea, Merilee, my wife and I watched “The Nativity Story” on Christmas Eve, pausing the DVD occasionally to answer Andrea’s questions about the annunciation, customs of the Jewish people at the time of the birth of Christ, King Herod’s efforts to prevent any threat to his throne, and the visit of the Magi. She was genuinely curious about why God gave the gift of His Son to the world. Some friends recently gave her a English/Chinese Bible, she said, and she is very interested in learning more about Christ and the Bible.
Andrea studied English in school from the time she was in primary grades, but was seldom around English-speaking people to practice using it in conversation. She says she understands English better by reading it than by hearing it spoken.
On Christmas Day we included her in the family gift exchange. We took a family photo of her with our children and granddaughter and gave her a framed copy for her apartment in Louisville.
For Christmas dinner we shared with Andrea typical American cuisine. She especially enjoyed Cheryl’s mashed potatoes and the ham. She shared with us a couple of Chinese dishes: tofu and dumplings, which we dipped in a soy sauce spiced with onions and ginger.
We learned that Chinese people tell their children the reverse of what we tell ours here, that if you dig a hole deep enough you’ll eventually end up in China.
For our family China is no longer on the opposite side of the world. It is as close as our new family member in Louisville.