The other day I got an unexpected [webcam] call. I’ve been “friends” with Zhang Lei, son of the foreman on the farm I worked on in Jilin, since I got QQ, but he has always had limited internet access so we rarely talk.
But this call was preceded by the words, “Are you there? This is Xiao Li.” His mother! It was well past midnight and I was heading to bed, but I took the call anyway, and we talked for about an hour. It was so good to hear from her! I hadn’t heard her voice or seen her face since I visited Hunchun in May 2010, nearly two years ago.
She caught me up on all the news of our mutual friends – the big news being that Zhang Lei is married! He’s a few years younger than me and I always felt like they [not-so] secretly wanted us to get married, so I’m extremely happy for him and a tiny bit relieved :)
The next night, I got another call – this time from Xiao Zhang, Zhang Lei’s father. It’s hard to describe how I when I saw his face and heard his voice after so long. He is pretty much one of my favorite people in the entire world. You know how your mother’s voice is about the most comforting sound in the world? In my second language of Chinese, that’s the role that he fills – his voice was the first one that I really heard and understood in Chinese. His Chinese is the standard by which I compare everyone else’s; to me it is perfectly unaccented 普通话.
And he understands me – yes, we still have a lot of cultural differences but he, more so than any other Chinese person I’ve talked to, can see through the grammatical mistakes and limited vocabulary to what I’m trying to say. While we chatted, I tried to tell him that we have a Chinese language radio station here in the Bay Area, but I realized I didn’t know the word for radio. He figured it out immediately from my clues (not the TV, the thing you only listen to) and said the word for me a few times, clearly and slowly.
Xiao Zhang has done a lot of different kinds of work – welding, chicken-keeping, farming, etc. – and I don’t think he’s very highly educated, but as we talked I told him that I think he was born to be a teacher. Later, though, I thought about it more and reconsidered. I’m not sure if he was born to be a teacher, if he was born to be a Chinese teacher, or if he was born to be my Chinese teacher. Either way, I’m lucky to have had him act as such!