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Mean Old Lao Deng! | terimccarthyblahblahblog

Mean Old Lao Deng!

Posted by admin in April 7th, 2009
Published in faith, missions

I was a big, dumb, white girl from Kansas living in a city of 1.5 million Chinese. In fact, in the fall of 1983, there were only about 15 foreigners total in our newly opened city of Changchun. I was there with two other women and we were the first Americans to teach at the Changchun College of Geology in the school’s 35-year history. We were a part of Deng Xiao Ping’s Open Door Policy. Oddly enough, China’s ruling powers believed that China needed to learn English in order to modernize. Hmmm. Looks like they were right on that one.

I’ll never forget my first moments on campus. The taxi pulled into the parking area of our new home! It was a gray, unpainted Soviet-style concrete cracker box with three stories. Though the building could house 100 to 150 people, the administration decided it would be best to house only the foreign teachers there so as to keep our foreignness from contaminating the whole campus. So we were the only ones living in the entire building. We were on the first floor. The second floor housed the ping pong table and none of us ever dared to venture up to the third floor. I have no idea what was up there. But I swear sometimes at night I heard noises. Scary.

There was a guard desk right inside the front door of our building—at the entrance—that was manned (or I should say womanned) day and night by two middle-aged women who worked 12-hour shifts. Guests were required to sign in; the foreign teachers were required to sign out. Lots of fun.

The school administration and the Communist Party had appointed a man by the name of Lao Deng to watch over, manage, and take care of the building and all its contents, including us. He hated us. He hated our guts! Lao Deng didn’t take too kindly to foreigners, especially useless women from America trying to poison students’ minds with the English language. His country didn’t need foreign ideas, foreign languages, or foreign teachers.

Lao Deng was an army man. He had also been part of Mao’s Red Guard that wreaked havoc over all of China during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. He wore a green army uniform that looked a bit like pajamas. He always stood very straight—at attention. He wore a cap with a bright, shiny red star of China just above the bill. He wore his hair buzzed, only about a quarter of an inch long all over. He never smiled. He never engaged in small talk. He was all business and his business was keeping an eye on us.

Lao Deng’s responsibilities included providing our toilet paper, changing light bulbs, delivering our mail, inspecting our rooms for contraband like hot plates or Chinese Bibles. He loved the part of his job where he got to do the surprise inspections of our rooms. It gave him a real sense of control. He loved that. Also, there is an important principle in life that I have learned: He who holds the toilet paper holds all the power.

Lao Deng obviously knew that too.

He expressed his hate for us in all the small, irritating ways that can destroy one’s day. A letter from home opened and handed to me with congratulations on my sister’s pregnancy. News I had not yet heard. He instilled fear in us, so much so that running out of toilet paper became an emotional, as well as physical, crisis.

“You ask him.”

“NO! You ask him. I asked last time!”

My team members always voted me to be the one to go and humbly, embarrassingly, kowtow to Lao Deng and beg for toilet paper. (Believe me! It was one of the first words I learned when I started studying Chinese. I hated these times of begging). Once when I went to him with this request he shouted at me, “NO! You Americans are so wasteful. You need to learn how to conserve. No more toilet paper this week!” It was Monday. We were three women. It was horrid.

By October, when the first snows of northern China began to come daily and stay on the ground, we three American teachers had settled into our teaching, living, learning—daily routines. It was about then that the Communist Party officials and the university administration decided it was time for our first sixty days meeting. They explained that they wanted us to bring our complaints and criticisms to them so that they might do their jobs better. A little Mao-style rap session where criticism brings growth. Yeah. Right. Just think “Cultural Revolution” where an estimated 15 million Chinese died as a result of just “being honest.”

Our team met before the big Pow Wow and made a long list of complaints. Topping the list was Lao Deng’s mean-spirited way of dealing with us. He had withheld light bulbs and for three nights I sat in my dark little room (Note: in northeast China in the winter, night comes about 3 o’clock in the afternoon!) If we ran out of toilet paper he constantly reminded us of rationing and conservation. He never spoke kindly to us and he was always angry at our every request. He made our lives miserable and that was what he was trying to do! He hated us. He barked at us. And the authorities on that campus needed to know the abuse we were enduring. The meeting for us meant that Lao Deng’s bullying days were finally over!

Irma, being the oldest of the team at 65, was elected as our spokesperson. We dressed up for the meeting in our best professional clothing and came to the room armed with our very long list of complaints about the Dengmeister.

The meeting began. All Chinese protocol was followed. Have some tea. Warmly welcome you. We appreciate you. We appreciate you too. Life is good. Students are smart. Then they asked the million dollar question, “How can we improve our service to you? Are there any complaints at all?”

Now just moments before they asked the million dollar question I had started feeling a pit in my tummy…a kind of knot. In certain circles it might be called “a check in my spirit.” Whatever you call it, it was telling me that we shouldn’t unload this dump truck full of complaints about Lao Deng on to the administration. I wasn’t seated next to Irma, so I couldn’t discreetly get her attention. So, I prayed.

“Lord, if you want to you can stop us from reading our list. Give us a heads-up here please. What should we do?”

Suddenly, the Party Secretary looked directly at me and asked, “Huo Chi, (that’s my Chinese name) would you please represent your group and give us your criticisms and complaints so that we might do our job better?”

Why me? I know. I was the youngest; I was the dumbest; I was the least qualified to speak for the team. But, I’m loud. Very loud. In a meeting room of this size, it was important to be heard. My Mom always said people could hear me long before they could ever see me. In this case, my loudness was an asset.

I stood up and bowed to the table of VIPs. Irma took out the list, but I motioned her to keep it. The Lord had given me the words to say. You know there is that funny passage in the Gospels where Jesus tells His disciples not to worry about what to say when brought in before the magistrates, but that the Holy Spirit would fill their mouths with words (Luke 12:11)? It was kind of like that.

“First of all,” I started standing very straight and using my best English, “I would like to thank all of you for the honor and privilege of teaching at the great Changchun College of Geology. My teammates and I are very happy here and find our students to be some of the brightest and hardest working students we have ever encountered.

“We especially wanted to take this opportunity to recognize Lao Deng. He is a great man who is so helpful to all of us.”

Lao Deng was sitting in a folding chair near the door. When my words finally reached his ear of understanding his expression was notably one of shock—complete and utter surprise. I went on…”We are foreign women in a new land and he has done such a great job of making us feel at home and welcoming us to this new place.” Deborah, my other teammate, was kicking my leg under the table skirt. Still, I continued, brave pony soldier that I am.

“So, for the team I would like to offer this word of appreciation to Lao Deng.” And I began clapping. Deborah and Irma joined in not to appear rude. Then the entire table of VIPs stood and applauded old Lao Deng whose face had turned very red and whose smile (something I had never seen on him before) was starting to emerge. And we clapped, and clapped, for an uncomfortable length of time.

For the Chinese of that period nothing was more important or more significant than being recognized and honored by high Party officials (not stoned, but high-ranking). It was a defining moment for Lao Deng. The meeting ended. Everyone shook hands. At dinner that night neither Irma nor Deb would speak to me. Can’t blame them.

The next morning, sitting outside my door were six rolls of toilet paper.

That afternoon Lao Deng brought me a hot plate. I asked him, “Isn’t this against building regulations?”

“You let me worry about that,” he smiled. And plugged that sucker in. In a building that only had heat four hours a day in a land where temps could plummet way below zero, a hot plate was a great thing to have.

Now, Christmas was not celebrated in China in those days. Mao had only been dead four years and much of his doctrine and philosophy was still deeply rooted in the people. But the director of our sending organization had already negotiated with the college that we American teachers could have December 25th off. But the campus would go on with business as usual.

Early Christmas morning, around 5 o’clock, there was a banging at my door, more like a pounding, that woke me from a very sound sleep. My room was freezing (we only had radiator heat from around 10 PM until 3 AM). I forced myself out of bed and grabbed my robe. I searched for my bunny slippers and was stumbling around the small, dark room. Finally, I opened the door thinking it was probably one of my teammates eager to start Christmas Day, but it was Lao Deng standing there at full attention in dress uniform. “Lai le! Lai le!” he shouted at me and motioned me with his arms. “Come! Come!” he shouted again. I wrapped my robe tightly around me and ran after him down the cold concrete hallway to the front lobby of the building. There standing in all its glory was a three foot rubber tree plant potted in one of those Chinese-style planters covered with red hand-made paper chains, hand strung candies; little pieces of string and on the top was a perfectly shaped Red Star of China. I didn’t know what to say. Lao Deng was so proud of himself he beamed. He looked at me as if to say, “Well what do you think? Do you like it?”

It was the most beautiful Christmas tree I had ever seen. (Though a little Charlie-Brown-Christmas-tree like).

I cried. Like the big dumb donkey girl that I am. I shook his hand and said thank you over and over again.

After we stood there admiring the Christmas Tree, he decided to walk me back to my room. On the way back down the cold concrete hall I asked him, “Lao Deng how do you know about the Christmas Tree?”

“Well,” he said, “when I was a little boy my Father died in the war and my Mother died in the famine. My little brother and I were orphaned but in my village lived two American missionary women. They took us in and adopted us. They taught me about baby Jesus and God. They taught me songs and I learned to read the Bible. They always celebrated Christmas. You always remind me of one of them………………………the really, really fat one.” (Uh. Ouch).

“They were my American Missionary Mamas.”

“Lao Deng,” I hesitated. “What happened to you?”

He told me how the Japanese had taken his American mothers to prison camp. He never saw them again. Even though they survived the camps, they were immediately sent home to the US and not allowed to take him or his brother with them. He told me how he had no way to feed, clothe or shelter himself or his little brother. Then one day the Communist Army came marching through his village. They told him if he joined the army they would provide for both him and his little brother. They promised that his little brother would be given an education. Lao Deng said, “It was then that I turned my back on God who had abandoned me and I bought the Party ideas—hook , line and sinker.”

He was sad. I was sad. I wanted to hug him or touch his arm, but that would have been so inappropriate for his culture.

He started again, “I forgot all about God until the day you got out of that taxi. When I saw you I was reminded of my fat American Missionary Mama. You look so much like her and your personality is the same. Then I started remembering what I had learned–thinking of them. But that is all finished now.”

“No it’s not!” I said sharply. “What do you mean ‘it’s finished’?”

“I have done things Huo Chi that cannot be forgiven,” he looked away from me.

My heart broke. I didn’t know how to say Bible verses in Chinese. I wanted to remind him of 1 John 1:9. But I couldn’t. I wanted to say to him that God is faithful to forigve us when we ask. I was able to say that God is a forgiving God. Not very convincingly though.

“Merry Christmas Huo Chi!” he shouted trying to shake off the gloom and regain the joy of the moment.

“Merry Christmas Lao Deng!” I shouted back. Smiling. Waving as he left the building.

I went back into my room, crawled into bed and curled up under my down comforter. I started thinking: Maybe this was why I came to China. Maybe the Lord loved Lao Deng so very much that He wanted to remind the little orphan boy of His love and His Word. (Good thing all those diets hadn’t worked too!) I said a prayer for Lao Deng while snuggled there in my bed. Quite honestly I fell madly in love with him that day and that love never ceased. We did a lot of stuff together after that. He helped with me with my shopping. He helped me with train tickets. I went to his home to meet his wife and for dinner. His attitude completely changed. To me, he became a different man.

The next year it was the same ritual. Early Christmas morning there was a loud pounding at my door. He was all smiles and not as stiff as last year. He grabbed my hand this time and practically dragged me down the concrete hallway. There she was, a little bigger this year and with lights! We stood there admiring her, just the two of us on that bitterly cold Christmas morning.

“Merry Christmas Lao Deng.”

“Merry Christmas Huo Chi.”

I had gotten him a little gift–a small silver-plated business card holder.

He had made me a small bamboo box with a design burned into it. I have it still. It is one of my treasures.

A few years later I returned to Changchun to teach for the summer. Lao Deng was nowhere to be found. I asked around and someone sadly reported that he had liver disease and was bedridden at home. I borrowed a bike and prayed my way through the maze of the old part of the city. Even though I had been to his home before, it was a long time ago and old Changchun could get very confusing. Finally, I found the worn out dilapidated building where he lived. I knocked on the door. His wife answered and invited me into the crowded single room with one window and a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The space was the size of my Mother’s kitchen and three adults were living there (Lao Deng, his wife and his mother-in-law). They had a set of bunk beds on one side of the room, a cot on the other. There was a small wooden, square table and a makeshift kitchen in the corner. The floors were cracked concrete. There was a small three-legged stool under the window near the bottom bunk where Lao Deng was lying. When I came into the room he tried to raise up to meet me. I motioned for him to stay down. I pulled the three-legged stool near the bed and sat next to him. I laid my hand on his and prayed quietly, softly, that the Lord would touch him and that I might know what to say.

“Lao Deng, how are you doing?” I asked almost in a whisper.

“Not too well Huo Chi. You know I’m dying,” he said.

I nodded. Someone at the school had prepared me. I was crying silently. I couldn’t stop the tears and I had a lump that was hurting deep in my throat. He was jaundiced. His hands were bony. He looked tired and so very frail. So different from the strong soldier man that met the taxi my first day on campus.

“Lao Deng, are you ready to die?” It was the hardest question I had ever asked anyone in my life.

“Yes Huo Chi. Don’t worry. I am ready to see the baby Jesus.”

And I knew he was. In that filthy, crowded little room lost in the maze of an overpopulated city in China I knew God was watching over a little orphan boy whose name had never been lost nor forgotten to an all-loving, ever-watchful, merciful and tenacious Heavenly Father. Peace.

6 users Responded In This Post

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103. big sister said,
April 7th, 2009 at 10:06 am

I am too overwhelmed with emotion to express the affect this working of our Heavenly Father has on me at this moment – this is one of my all-time favorites! Keep that ‘pen’ filled and running…love, love

104. grannieannie said,
April 7th, 2009 at 11:23 am

OK, so I’ve heard this story before…but never has affected me like this. Father really IS watching over all his people. And loving us all.

105. Deb said,
April 7th, 2009 at 9:07 pm

Thank God He forgives…..

106. Darrell Druvenga said,
April 8th, 2009 at 6:52 am

I have heard you tell this story before, Teri, but reading it myself adds a new dimension! From our Education Days, we know of the power of emotions–we tend to remember those things that have a powerful, emotional impact on us! I will remember this one, Teri. Thanks for sharing! Darrell Druvenga

107. admin said,
April 8th, 2009 at 6:58 am

Thanks for your kind words Darrell. You probably have a million of these kinds of stories. I posted the one about Afghanistan today. Sure brings back memories. 🙂

108. ndhorton said,
April 8th, 2009 at 8:43 am

Teri, thank you for reminding why we’re doing what we’re doing. You are a blessing.

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