My best friend from home, Tracie, lived in China for a year during college. She may never have perfected the language, but she learned quite a lot for a little white girl from the Valley. The first Sunday we spent at home together, she had just gotten back from her trip, and I had just returned from crewing in the Greek Islands on the sailboat, Reflections. It was July 2008.
“We’re not gunna stick out at all!” Kaity joked, as she, Tracie, and I made our way to the front of the building where tiny, black-haired Chinese men stood handing out bulletins. Kaity’s the only girl I know who’s slightly taller than me, and she also happens to be blonde haired and blue eyed, very Anglo-Saxon.
“You know, last night I was a little nervous about this,” Kait continued in her sarcastic tone, “But now I’m like, let’s do this.”
She took a sip of her coffee that we made at Tracie’s house, warmed up in a silver travel mug. I knew it was just because she was running late, but I couldn’t help but think, “We Americans can’t even go to church without coffee.”
We made our way to the man with the bulletins, who looked up at us skeptically.
“This service is all in Mandarin,” he said. “There isn’t a translator.”
“We know,” Tracie smiled.
“Oh.” Apparently he was still confused.
“Wo zhi dao,” Tracie said. (I know.)
“Oh! You speak Mandarin!” The man’s face was simply glowing. “You speak Mandarin too?” he asked me while holding out the blue paper filled with Mandarin characters.
“Um, no, just her,” I said, pointing to Tracie.
“Me either,” Kaity said, not bothering to take a bulletin.
We walked inside the church and took seats in the back of the sanctuary.
“Unless someone wants a wall in front of them,” Kaity said, “Let’s stay back here.”
I sat in between Tracie and Kait, and almost immediately after we sat down, a much younger man with glasses and a big white smile came up to us.
“You speak Mandarin?” he asked, pointing to Tracie, who smiled and nodded her head.
“Wow, that’s great,” he said. “You probably speak even better than I do. I speak more Cantanese.”
Not knowing the difference between the Mandarin and Cantanese, I chose to remain silent.
“Can you guys fill these out?” he asked, handing me a clipboard. “The sisters can fill one out together.”
I looked down at him blankly.
“Oh, you’re not sisters?” he asked, pointing to Kait and me.
“No.” Tracie laughed and took the board.
“It’s just because we’re both white and tall,” I whispered.
Once we had finished filling out our forms, we were introduced to a female Chinese college student, who was strategically placed next to us to translate the sermon. She was wearing a Boston Red Sox cap and had on jeans and a T-shirt. She barely cleared my elbow.
“Where are you from?” Tracie asked her curiously. “Have you ever lived in East Asia?”
“I was born in China, in Nan Jing, then we moved to Oklahoma when I was ten.”
“Have you ever been to Tong Cheng?” Tracie asked.
“Um,” the girl smiled shyly, “I don’t know Chinese geography very well.”
A bald man at the front of the church started playing the piano, and a middle-aged woman with a dark brown bob and creamy white skin stepped up to the podium to lead the congregation in song. Kait and I sat in silence while Tracie made an effort to sing along, writing the title of the song in characters onto her blue bulletin. The young girl on her left looked out of the corner of her eye to see what Tracie was writing, and when she realized Tracie could transcribe Mandarin, her eyes waxed into the size of two moons, and she grinned in delight.
“That’s my brilliant friend,” I thought.
When we finished singing, the pastor came to the front of the church. Apparently it was time for guest introductions because suddenly everyone’s heads had turned backward, waiting in suspense for us to stand up and introduce ourselves.
“Tracie, Rachel, and um…cat?” the pastor asked meekly as we took a stand.
“Kait,” Kaity corrected.
“Oh, yes, sorry. Well, who speaks Mandarin?”
Tracie slowly raised her hand. “A little.” She said this in Mandarin and the people around us practically fell over themselves in amazement.
“And are you all in school here at Northridge?” the pastor asked, looking directly at me.
I started to answer and then turned towards Tracie. “Say it in Mandarin!” I whispered, smiling.
“Wo shi xue sheng, ta yi jing bi ye le, to ye shi xue sheng.” (I’m a student, she’s graduated, and she is also a student.)
The church erupted in applause for about a quarter of a minute, and I laughed out loud.
“Welcome! Welcome!” the pastor exclaimed, and we took our seats to listen to the message, which amazingly started in Psalm 19.
Kaity opened her Bible, read the first few passages, and leaned over to let me read over the verses.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”
No language where their voice is not heard--how fitting. Maybe Tracie wasn’t in East Asia anymore, and maybe I didn't speak Mandarin (and by maybe, I mean definitely), but that morning, we were both able to find a body of believers to connect with. Tracie never could have known this when she wrote me the email earlier that year about not wanting to leave China.
In a small way, she’d never have to.