Gifts from China

China is known as a state of etiquette and ceremonies. Of late, it is also known for its system of government. But the Chinese people are known for their generosity, as attested to in a famous Chinese fable about the man who went to visit his friend with a swan as a gift. The swan escapes from the cage on the way, and in his effort to catch it, he grabs hold of only a feather. Instead of returning home, he continues his journey with the swan feather in hand. When his friend receives this unexpected gift, he is deeply moved by the story and the sincerity. Out of this fable came the proverb: "The gift is nothing much, but it's the thought that counts."

When 13 from OBU boarded a plane in Dallas, Texas, in early July destined for Urumqi, China, their goal was to bring the gift of English to speakers of other languages, mostly Chinese and Uigur. But the group of 11 OBU students, accompanied by Jim and Conchita Hansford, returned to America with gifts in many forms.

For 19 years, OBU has participated in an exchange agreement with Xinjiang University, which has approximately 40,000 students and is located in the capital city of Urumqi, a city of 2 million people. "This program is unparalleled because each OBU student is assigned three Chinese university students (teaching partners) who are English majors. These students speak very good English, and they become guides, guards and bargainers to our students. This is not your typical short-term trip. Our students become totally immersed in the culture," says Tom Karman, director for international studies at OBU.

"Presenting gifts is an extremely important part of Chinese culture. We all exchanged gifts at the final banquet held at the end of the last week of teaching. There was the formal exchange of gifts among the administrators and leaders. Gifts are presented based on social standing and position. The students and teaching partners also exchanged gifts," says Jim Hansford, professor of music. "Even when we were touring in Beijing and Xi'an it was customary to present small gifts to the tour guide and bus driver, in addition to the standard tip. The cooks, waitresses, dorm workers and others with whom we spent much time also received small mementos. The Chinese are a very giving people even though they generally have very little in material goods." And it is this generosity that the OBU team found throughout the trip.

Johnny (his American name), one of Xinjiang University's teaching partners, made an immediate impact on the group. "Johnny stood out that first day. It had to have been the smile he always had on his face, but something told me that he was going to stand out. And he did. He really, really did," Jim says. "Johnny went shopping with all of us," says Elise Anderson. "He was just so giving, and it is just something he wanted to do. On the last night we were in China, he had a gift for every single one of us." Jennifer Green received one of Johnny's childhood sentiments, a tiny pocket knife. "It was a knife his dad had given him when he was 7 years old," she says. "They gave us gifts and when they took us out for dinner or lunch they would pay for our meals, and it was really hard for me to accept it and let them do it, but we were their guests so they felt they had to provide for us, and at the same time, we couldn't say no because it would be offensive to them," she adds.

It was not just the physical exchange of gifts that impacted the OBU group, but the sharing of cultures. "Probably the defining moment for me was watching one of my students doing a traditional Uigur dance. The beauty of it moved me, especially because I got through to her. She shared this traditional dance openly with me and others, a dance that is a big part of her culture," says Elise Anderson.

Christine Chapman felt so much at home with the people and the culture that she struggled to return to America. "I was actually asking if I could lose my passport! I didn't want to get on the plane. Urumqi was my home," she says.

Jennifer also came away with a wealth of memories. "My teaching partners gave me a video. It has every single one of them saying some sort of goodbye," she says. "They even did the chicken dance that I taught them. I have already watched it three times since I've been back."

As the 2004 China team deboarded the plane in August, back in their homeland, they reminisced about not only the gifts they gave but the gifts they received. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts exchanged on that trip was the gift of friendship.