Summer rain dripped down, thinning the air. Although it was a warm day, the fried Chinese cruller dipped in hot soy milk made for a refreshing breakfast. The soup dumplings and hot tea were another welcome and complementary pairing. We ate like kings in China, and smiled at the husband and wife who owned the restaurant, one of the few ways we could communicate our satisfaction along with our broken Mandarin. “Xie, xie,” we all muttered as we filed out of the restaurant to catch the bus.
The buses never came to a full stop in Xining; they merely paused long enough for people to jump off or on. We had been doubly warned to be prompt or we would eat the bus’s dust. After a few days in Xining, dust had already become a part of our diet. It was the menu item Xining never ran out of, a result of a ceaselessly-working city. “I blew my nose and it was just black,” one of our team members said.
Stepping into China and Tibet, I was struck by how foreign and familiar the continent was. Since I was born in America, my parents took every opportunity to pass down their experiences of Korea and its history at the dinner table. Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, which means that I might have some Japanese blood. It was the result of an invasion where hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forced into labor and prostitution and to push aside their own culture and history. My parents came to the United States by choice, having grown up in the aftershocks of the Korean War. However, I didn’t look like the people around me, so I occupied the border with two feet on two different continents.
The buses never came to a full stop in Xining; they merely paused long enough for people to jump off or on.
Our short-term mission team had arrived in Beijing a year after the Olympics. We were led by two staff members from our college fellowship, which had connections to missionaries disguised as an NGO. Acceptable religious practice was regulated by the government, so we had come under the veil of volunteer work. I was 21 and unlike some of the team members, who had to raise their own funds for the trip, my parents were able to support me completely. During an early interest meeting for the trip, we were all asked why we wanted to go. When my turn came, I couldn’t hide the truth. There was no serendipity or higher calling like the others.
“I just want to go.” I hadn’t recognized the privilege that dripped from my statement. My parents were devout Christians and when they were dropping me off, my mother had expounded her experience in prayer to one of the leaders. God had reminded her of the story of Abraham, and that his journey was somehow reflective of my own. So I went with my parents’ blessing, both spiritual and financial.
On arrival, we spent our first day touring Beijing before a 24-hour train ride to Xining, located in the Tibetan plateau. Xining was known for its diversity, hosting a large Muslim population as well as numerous minority groups, including Tibetans. Evangelizing would be precarious at best, so we would teach English to elementary school children and young adults, clean another missionary’s restaurant, give testimonies at underground house churches, and spend time with Tibetan orphans.
Rain slicked the sidewalks and asphalt during our walk from the bus, but soon began to let up. A repetitive pattern of convenience stores and restaurants lined every block until we hit a row of deserted-looking buildings. We walked down an alley where a school building stood. A small plaque featured the name of the orphanage and laughter reverberated from one of the hallways. At the top of the stairs was a classroom filled with Tibetan students. Most were around 12 or older, with a couple of adults in the mix. They stared at us as we stared back at them. I couldn’t help but notice their distinct red cheeks.
The teacher brought the class to attention and told them that everyone would be paired up with a team member. With few ways to communicate, we resorted to hand gestures and facial expressions. They were no strangers to language barriers. Although Xining was a diverse city, Mandarin had been deemed universal. So the students spoke to each other in their native Tibetan, switching to Mandarin when scolded by their teacher. I introduced myself and made sure to enunciate the “r,” an instilled habit from a lifetime of mistakenly being called Brian.
“Ryan?” The teacher pointed to a boy in front of me, who was around 12 years old, and said, “His name is Ryan.” Ryan sported a buzzcut and a warm expression. I shook his hand and smiled. Ryan returned my smile with a polite one of his own and we sat down at his desk. It was a natural pairing. He pulled out his school supplies and showed them to me: his various pencils, erasers, and the box he kept them in. He brought his finger to his lips, as if he was quietly pondering what else to show me.
We later found out that most of the students were not really orphans. They were not even unwanted. Tibet has been considered a part of China since 1951, the result of war and a bloody stalemate where hundreds of thousands were killed. The Chinese have kept strict rule on Tibetan culture and religion since, suffocating it through government policies. We were told by the missionaries that Tibetans were a nomadic people, depending on the livestock and land to survive. For all its beauty and lush, green rolling hills that extended beyond the horizon, there seemed to be little else in the grasslands. Due to discriminatory acts from the Chinese government, Tibetans didn’t have much, so parents gave up their children so that they could both have more.
They stared at us as we stared back at them. I couldn’t help, but notice their distinct red cheeks.
After Ryan had showed me everything, we took turns playing a few card games and making little origami stars. He held his UNO cards close to him, only showing them to me to strategize his next move. His smug expression was charming and slightly mischievous. He laid down his cards carefully and quickly retracted any card he laid down by mistake. He showed the same quiet determination when we made the origami stars. I had great difficulty and didn’t hide it from Ryan, hoping to make him laugh at my ineptitude. He was much better at it than I was, patiently putting in the effort to fold and shape the colored papers into puffy stars.
Our time together was short since we only had a couple of hours each day for a week due to other volunteer commitments. After the card games and origami folding, we walked down the stairs and back out into the alley. The rain hadn’t let up completely, but continued in a slow drip. Laughter escaped out of the school. Some of the students had decided to walk out with us. Ryan ran up to my side and I put my arm over his shoulder as we walked through the alley. My parents had named me Ryan because they liked the meaning “little king.” I wish I told Ryan what our name meant, but unlike me, he had chosen his name. Maybe he already knew.
As we neared the end of the alley, Ryan and the rest of the students had to turn around and go back. Along the way, we saw children crowding an ice cream freezer at one of the stores. Assorted milk bars, green pea popsicles, and corn-shaped ice cream sat inside. Our American currency easily allowed us ice cream and warm soda, a welcome respite from the hot tea served at every meal. Refrigeration and clean water were luxuries that we could afford if they had been available. However, availability itself was a luxury, so we had what we had. It only occurred to me just how fortunate we were after the trip, and how gluttonous I was. But despite eating until my belly bulged at every meal, I had grown noticeably leaner at the end of the trip.
Due to discriminatory acts from the Chinese government, Tibetans didn’t have much, so parents gave up their children so that they could both have more.
One evening, I was completely alone in the shared bedroom. I sat on my top bunk and hunched over my Bible, reading the story of Abraham and journaling my thoughts, grasping for the reason I came.
“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. ‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’”
I searched for a hidden message in these passages, certain that there was a specific one just for me. I prayed for a revelation, but there was none. Somehow I couldn’t see what was so clear about the story. He was called by God and had left the comforts and security of his home and inheritance to journey to an unknown land not just to be blessed, but to be a blessing to the nations.
Near the end of our mission trip, we had a chance to go to an outdoor market to shop for souvenirs and presents. I bought Ryan a backpack, which promptly needed a stitch. On our last day, we came to the orphanage with our parting gifts and I saw Ryan’s face light up when I gave him the backpack, as well as one of my winter hats. The hat was slightly large for his head, but he looked better in it than me. I hoped he’d grow into it. At the end, I looked at Ryan’s face only to turn away. When I did, I saw one of my team members bawling like a baby. Tears began to stream down my face and I tried to stifle any sobs.
Ryan didn’t cry. He sat sullenly across from me as I wiped my face. I gave him a copy of a photo of us taken a few days prior. Each of us wrote a note to our other half as a kind of farewell card. I wrote it in English, hoping one day he would learn to read it. Now, I realize I wrote the letter as if our names weren’t the only connection between us, but as if we were the same person. He already knew what it was like to be simultaneously away from home, but still there. He was aware of how even people of the same country could be cold and distant if you looked different or spoke another language. He was a little king of what he had inherited on a continent both foreign and familiar.
Then came his parting gift. It was a drawing of a horse with a small photo sticker of him on the bottom right corner. The photo featured him with longer hair and was stylized, while a blue fireball floated above his open left hand. His drawing has a slight tear in it now, and I find myself looking at his photo sticker more than his horse drawing. His right hand is on his chin and his face feigns deep thought. I had planned to frame the drawing, but for eight years it’s remained under my desk. Ryan is now around the age I was when I first met him, and I’ve dreamed of meeting him again. I imagined him finding me in America, and embracing him in ecstatic tears.
It’s an incredibly selfish and entitled fantasy. I don’t know where he is, and I wouldn’t know what to say or do if I did see him again. All I can hope for is that he didn’t lose the hat I gave him, and that the hat reminds him of me. How once we had been so close together, yet so far away.
Ryan Kim is a Korean-American and MFA student in the UBC Creative Writing program.
Photograph by Ryan Kim.