Ten years of friendship from Zhengzhou to Beijing — thanks, Peter

For those of you who don’t know, this year marks the tenth anniversary of my first landing in China — August 27, 1999. That day, when I stumbled into Beijing’s old international airport, never did I realize it would change my life entirely. That I would spend the majority of the next ten years living and working in this country; that I would find my husband here, and get married here; that I would find myself so entirely captivated by a country so drastically different from what I’ve known.

Truly, though, it’s the people in China that I love the most. I’ve discovered friendships in this country so deep, and precious, and strong. These friendships sustain and nourish me, and help me to rise above all of the difficulties one encounters in this country.

Besides my husband, there is one friend in China who stands out from all the rest — and this year marks 10 years of friendship together. That friend is Peter Pi, who I had the privilege of spending five days with in Beijing.

Peter and I met at Henan College of Education in Zhengzhou, where I began teaching English in 1999. He and I first saw one another on the roof of the school, watching fireworks go off in celebration of National Day. I never spoke to him then because I’d lost my voice and had been told by the doctors not to speak, but still I saw him. It wasn’t until several weeks later in October, when I was sitting on the stairs just outside of the Foreign Teachers dormitory that he approached me to talk. By then, I’d been accustomed to being approached by English students with the same litany of questions: where are you from? What do you think of China (and Zhengzhou)? How much money do you make? And so on. I don’t necessarily find such questions disagreeable — indeed, the exercise is helpful for students to improve their oral English. However, sometimes the approach leaves you a bit dry. If you have enough of these interactions — which inevitably happens to anyone teaching English in China — you feel hungry for a real connection with the people.

With Peter, it was completely different. At first, when I saw him approaching, I had mentally prepared myself for the same line of questions — and I was pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t like that at all. We just had a REAL conversation which felt less like an oral English practice, and simply more about getting to know each other. There was something about him that I liked — a certain humbleness, and honesty about him. Over the years, I know the feeling has been mutual. He has often praised me over the phone because I was never overly obsessed with clothing and material goods, preferring casual and comfortable threads, as well as a simple existence.

As that year at Henan College of Education went on, I got to know Peter very well because he dated one of my students for a period of time, a girl named Erin. I noticed how Peter was a fine influence on her, encouraging her to study hard and take my oral English classes seriously (something which, sadly, few of my students, who came from wealthy families, ever did). I saw some significant improvement in her English by the end of the fall semester, which no doubt Peter had a hand in, even though the two of them broke up later.

In the Spring semester, my then boyfriend Christian, a Zhengzhou native, had left the country for England, and left me behind, so I sought solace in my friends at school, in particular Peter and his rather vivacious friend Frank G, a shorter fellow with enormous eyes and eyebrows who was well-known among the foreign teachers for his booming voice, and general enthusiasm for English (including getting up every morning to shout English phrases at the top of his lungs, a routine recommended by the adherents to the “Crazy English” method). Peter, Frank G and I (and occasionally Frank G’s future wife, Felicia) would get together at cafes and talk honestly about everything China — and more. Sometimes it was incredible to me how neither of them were afraid to explore the depths of politics, society and sometimes even taboo subjects freely with me. I learned so much about China through them. When Christian and I broke up painfully in May 2000, I had Peter, among others, to lean on.

We also loved watching movies, and I never ceased to be amazed by how Peter seemed to open to just about anything. I knew, for example, that most Chinese found homosexuality completely distasteful. Yet when I watched “Boys Don’t Cry” with Peter, he didn’t see anything wrong with two girls being in love, and, in fact, was moved by the tragedy depicted in the movie. Peter especially loved having “discussions” after the movies, such as we did with “Boys Don’t Cry”. It almost felt like Siskel and Ebert, where we’d make a round circle with whoever else was present — Frank G, Erin — and talk about the themes and issues of the movie, and give our own critiques. These discussions were so novel to me, and I expect to Peter and the others. I had seen movies my entire life, and while I’d chat about them afterwards, I’d never pondered movies so deeply until I came to Henan College of Education.

In 2001, when I returned to China to work in Hangzhou, I was determined to see Peter during a trip back to Henan province for the National Day holiday. That was when I began to understand where Peter came from, and what he was truly made of.

Peter, I discovered, is from Zhengyang county, a county located near Zhumadian in southern Henan Province. His hometown is a small place with only three major streets, which end at the fields — fields that I saw burnt by farmers after the harvest, almost like a warning sign as to the sorrows hidden within their homes. He grew up in abject poverty, sometimes going hungry because there wasn’t enough food. He likes to say he failed the college entrance exam — it isn’t that he didn’t get in anywhere, but just that he got accepted into the worst type of school possible, a two-year teacher’s college. He studied history for 2 years in Zhumadian. It was only later that he received a scholarship to study English at the Henan College of Education, a two-year education he often describes as the happiest years of his life.

Originally, Peter wanted to go back home to Zhengyang help take care of his family. But he faced many sorrows as a teacher at the middle school in Zhengyang county. His father died in late 2001, leaving his mother a widow with less support. The girl he fell in love with, a teacher at his school, was married to a man he knew, and he even attended their wedding, hiding away his broken heart.

In the years after 2001, Peter decided to change his plans, which had originally been to stay in Zhengyang as a teacher, get married and have a family while taking care of his family. It was his father’s death that made him realize he could not count on having other people there for him, and that he wanted more in life.

He set his sights on getting into graduate school in Beijing as a way out of the countryside (since it’s one of the few ways to change one’s permanent residence in China). He chose Beijing Normal University’s comparative education department, a major with relatively low competition, and was accepted in 2004. Three years later, he graduated and found employment as a civil servant in Beijing’s education bureau, providing him with a good, stable job with decent benefits.

While Peter was proud of finally living and working in Beijing, he felt lonely. Our phone conversations post-graduation inevitably turned to how difficult it was for Peter to find a girlfriend. He couldn’t even believe that, in the three years at Beijing Normal, he never had a single date! But if you understand Chinese culture, it’s easy to see why. Peter is from the countryside. He earns little in his position, has no apartment of his own — living instead in a free dormitory for teachers — and naturally has no car. Most city girls in China will only marry men with apartments and cars, and generally look down on poor fellows from the countryside. But more than that, Peter wanted a thoughtful girl — a girl who read books, who had thoughts of her own, who was caring and honest. Not so easy, in a world where girls would rather go shopping than read Sun’s Art of War or Shakespeare.

He finally met a girl in late 2008, a teacher who he admired because she was so devoted to her work and cared so much for her students. Their courtship was going along well enough, until Chinese New Year, when she learned that, if they ever got married, Peter’s mother would need to move in with them. Most Chinese girls fear the potentially rocky relationship they may have with their mother-in-law, and this girl decided she couldn’t handle it. She told him the day before meeting his mother, who spent the holiday with Peter in Beijing.

But Peter is never one to settle. He did not settle when he failed the entrance exam, nor did he settle with Zhengyang. So, he continued to contact the girl, even though they were no longer in a relationship.

So, just after I reunited with Peter, I learned some happy news: they are back together again. Will they get married? Maybe, but Peter is taking things slowly.

Still, while you can say Peter has been successful in finding a new life in Beijing, he remains troubled by the family members left behind in Zhengyang. His mother, who works a 10 RMB (~1.5 dollars) a day job in a breakfast cafe because she has nothing else to do with her time. His brother, who was forced to drop out of middle school because there wasn’t enough money to pay for his tuition, who now works in a store, and has learned to forget about the education he lost out of poverty. He can take care of himself, but cannot take care of his family.

I think Peter says it best himself: “Sometimes I think it is a wonder, for me, that I grow up in this family and come to Beijing. For many people, it is hard to imagine. In Beijing, Beijing Normal University, they don’t know so many people like me. Most people come from the rich family. They don’t know so many people who have the kind of experience like me.”

For Peter, things seem to be moving in the right direction. Besides getting back with his girlfriend, he now has the opportunity to go to Australia, because a principal at a school there (who met him in Beijing) has invited him for a visit and will pay for all of his travel expenses. Of course, he still has to wrangle with the visa, ever a complicated matter for any Chinese, but his work unit supports him and should be able to help him overcome the difficulties.

To this day, Peter remains one of my best friends in China. He is someone I trust with my deepest secrets, and he feels the same about me. In fact, this time he dubbed me his “sister,” a distinction that left me all smiles because he has long felt like family to me. It is hard to believe that a Chinese guy from Zhengyang county, Henan could share so much with an American girl from Cleveland, Ohio. But maybe that’s why the Chinese talk so much about destiny — or “yuanfen” 缘分 -- because some things, and people, are so incredible that any rational explanation defies our imagination.

So, here‘s to my incredible friend, Peter, and to 10 more years of friendship.

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