WE ARE PLEASED, this week, to welcome Susan Baller-Shepard to FriendshipAndFaith—our ongoing effort to promote cross-cultural friendship. One year ago, we kicked off this global effort by publishing our own stories in book form (look in the right margin for links to the book and to our WISDOM network). Then, we invited women far and wide to share their stories—and many have. Susan is a Presbyterian minister, an award-winning writer, a Mom—and a friend. (There’s more about her life with links to her website at the end of today’s story.)
FRIENDS WITH FAN
By the Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard
A dentist friend of mine tells me he has a patient, new to the United States, working on her English, from Beijing with sons the same ages as my sons, would I like to meet her?
The answer in my head is: Do I have time for this? I have a newly adopted daughter Lizzie from China, two active boys, and I feel overwhelmed as it is.
Instead, I say: “Sure! Why not?”
That’s how my friendship with Fan started, simply enough, eight years ago. We arranged a dinner party to have everyone get together: the dentist’s family, our family, Fan’s family. What is striking about Fan at first is her appearance. She has long black hair, beautiful eyes, a slender figure, and energy that makes her look like a teenager. As I grew to know Fan better, to know her kindness and generosity of spirit, she became a sort of archetypal woman for me—how I’d picture Lizzie’s birth mother, as a woman of grace and beauty.
One day, I had Fan out for coffee. She had recently traveled to Beijing, and had purchased adorable clothes for Lizzie. She explained, “With sons, I never get to shop for girl things.” She gave Lizzie quilted baby clothes, like you see on most babies in China. In the stillness of an afternoon with the boys at school, and Lizzie playing and napping, Fan and I talked. Fan was latching onto the English language incredibly fast. Through that first year I knew her, she was flying through English. She would apologize for her lack of language, not realizing her own mastery of it.
We talked about China. I asked her questions about her life, growing up in Beijing, about what she missed (her friends, family, and food), about what she enjoyed here (opportunities for her sons). I asked Fan to speculate about who she thought my daughter’s birth mother could be, what her life would have been like, what her birth mother would have thought about having a daughter?
Fan looked at me at one point and said, “You see all of this with Western eyes.”
It was a huge relief, that conversation. I was trying to get my head around the grief of Lizzie’s birth mother, the grief of those circumstances, and Fan gave me permission to not understand it all, to leave it open to mystery and differences of culture. I was feeling so raw in those days, trying to understand the magnitude of our adoption, the deep love I had for our daughter, the intensity of what was left behind in China. I was very aware that we had left behind a big piece of our daughter’s history in Yangjiang, China, a “small” coastal city of 2 million people, looking out onto the South China Sea.
I see Fan at our local Chinese New Year celebrations, at parties, and more often than not, at our bank, where she works. Fan’s friendship has been a bridge for me, connecting me in a real way to Lizzie’s motherland. Fan and Lizzie share a commonality I do not, they are both Chinese-born females living out their lives in America.
I am grateful for Fan’s friendship, more than she knows. When I tell her I’ve been reading Li Bai and Du Fu, ancient Chinese poets, she gives me books of modern Chinese poets. She tells me the ones she knows, the ones she grew up learning about, the ones she likes. In the collection of Bo Yang poetry she gave me, is a stanza from the poem “What Year What Month” that refers to the holiday Chong Yang, traditionally a time for family reunions:
What makes it so hard is it’s Chong Yang again
I lie listening as mountain echoes reach the grassy terrace
Floating and dancing, their dreaming spirits have all arrived
Once every day I can’t help but wonder
Like Bo Yang, “Once every day I can’t help but wonder,” about my great fortune—this gift of being my daughter’s mother in this lifetime. I pray for the “dreaming spirits” of her ancestors, giving thanks for the lives they lived, that lead up to Lizzie being all she is. And now, this added gift of knowing Fan? It’s learning about mooncakes, learning the sweetness of another world, and finding all that in a friend.
Stanza from “Poems of a Period” by Bo Yang, translated by Stephen L. Smith & Robert Reynolds, Joint Publishing Co. (HK).
The Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard, MSW, has written for many publications, including the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post “On Faith,” Spirituality & Health, Writer’s Digest, and Church & Society. Susan is a parish associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church-Normal, and for twelve years has been editor of an international spirituality web site www.spiritualbookclub.com with its blog of over 125 interviews. Author of the children’s book Matching Yu, Susan lives in Bloomington, Illinois, with her husband and three children.
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(Originally published at www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)