Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Don't Touch my Toilet Paper!

It had been a busy week. It was the end of my visit to northeast China and every day was packed with lunches, dinners, and afternoon coffee meetings with friends and former students who wanted to see me one last time before I left.

In the midst of everything, my brother Michael and I hadn't had a chance to go to the store to stock up on essentials. And we were out of toilet paper. So I decided to make a quick trip to the supermarket near our school before meeting some of our Korean students for lunch. Michael told me to "spare no expense" and get the best kind I could find, and that he would pay me back. It was worth the few extra cents per roll to have perforated squares that actually tear on the lines, and the bit of extra softness rather than the cheap sandpaper kind I usually get. So I splurged on the 18-roll bag "Kleenex" brand with the golden Lab puppy on the package. I didn't have time to drop off the toilet paper at home before my lunch appointment, so I had to take it with me.

Knowing I couldn't show up at our students' house empty-handed, I hurriedly popped into the fruit market on the way to pick up some tangerines. Chinese culture dictates that a guest should bring fruit or juice when they are invited to someone's house for dinner. So armed with my toilet paper and tangerines I knocked on the door of the apartment.

Sixteen-year-old "Peter," one of our Korean high school students, met me at the door with a big grin and quickly took my bags, coat, hat, and scarf for me. He was a gracious Asian host, thanking me for coming and showing me where I could sit and offering me a drink. He thanked me for the tangerines, putting them in a bowl on the table where we all could start eating them. And then he smiled really big and thanked me for the toilet paper, putting it in the bathroom. It all happened so quickly that I didn't realize what was going on until the toilet paper was already put away.

What could I do? I couldn't take it back. Peter thought it was a gift. And then I remembered that in Korean culture, toilet paper is a common gift for a guest to bring when invited to someone's house. So it was natural for Peter to assume the toilet paper was for him!

On the last day I was in town, Michael and I had a final lunch with my Korean "host mom" and her family. As we were getting ready to leave their house, one of the kids came back from a run to the store where he had picked up a package of toilet paper rolls. Michael eyed the bag and then asked if he could please have just one roll to take back to his house. We told them the story of how our toilet paper had been taken from us, and our host mom thought it was hilarious. So she agreed to let us have one roll.

We were going from her house to another Korean family's house for a last goodbye, so Michael decided he better hide the toilet paper in his coat or they might take it from him! He stuffed it deep into his coat pocket and didn't take it out until we were safely home and beyond the danger of having it stolen!

Monday, March 23, 2009


My Chinese cell phone number has eleven digits. It took me a long time to memorize it. It was actually convenient at times that I didn't know my phone number for those first few weeks, when random people on the bus in my small town in China would ask me to tutor them in English, or if some grandmother wanted to set me up with her grandson. I could honestly say I didn't know my number!

But eventually I did have to learn it. There were students and parents of students and potential students and friends and co-workers and neighbors who needed to know my number. And so after telling countless people my phone number over the following months and years, by the time I left China last May, I could have quoted it in my sleep!

When I returned to China last month for a 3-week visit, I took my old Chinese cell phone and charger with me. My brother Michael put some money in my account for me before I arrived so that I could use my phone when I got there.

But it had been nine months since I had thought about my Chinese phone number. So when an American in Hong Kong asked me for my number, I had to think about it for a minute. And nothing was coming to mind. Then suddenly it came to me, all at once, and in Chinese! "Yao - San - San, Ba - Si - Er - Wu..." I actually had to say it out loud in Chinese and write it down before I could tell my friend the number in English! :)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pondering the Pansies

Vibrant yellow and purple pansies have poked their nodding heads up in front of our house this week. Encouraged by the sunshine, they were there to greet us cheerfully as my mom, grandma, and I returned this afternoon from a lunch out at a local restaurant. I was focused on getting my stuff out of the car and opening the door for "Abuela" (what we call my 97-year-old grandma - it's Spanish for "grandmother"), when suddenly the squeaking wheels of her walker stopped. I turned to see if something was wrong, and saw her stooping over to examine the delicate blooms.

"I was just noticing," she said softly, "that this flower has three petals, and the rest of them have four." I was about to give some explanation about how it probably lost one of its petals, or maybe we just can't see the other petal, when Abuela straightened up again, looked at me and smiled. "Well, that's alright, if that's the way the Lord made it." And she continued her slow steps towards the door.

My grandmother doesn't speak very often, and she doesn't say very much. When she does say something, I pay attention. And so I've been pondering what she said this afternoon. It seems I'm always too quick to come up with explanations for how or why something is different than I think it should be. I question God and ask Him why He does things that don't make sense to me.

But if I don't seem to have as many "petals" as others, maybe it's just because it's the way the Lord made me. And no other explanation is necessary.