It takes a village to raise a child. It took several mothers to shape the woman I am.
I was born in a remote and economically deprived village in southwest China. All the young and middle-aged adults in my village served as migrant workers in coastal and developed cities. Children would be left behind in their grandparents’ house, the so-called “left-behind children” in China. My three cousins and I belong to this category. My biological mother left the then two-year-old me to my grandparents to work in a city 3,000 miles away. Although without my parents around, I felt joy and peace most of the time. Because every other child was in the same situation, and my grandparents truly loved me unconditionally. Although Grandma was never educated, how she raised us and treated people in the village made her well respected. She always gave our limited portion of flour or meat to sick neighbors and poorer families. Sometimes when young couples had conflicts, they would ask my grandmother to help resolve the conflict. I was like a tail to Grandma, so her influence was tremendous in shaping my moral standards and belief system. In hindsight, I am so grateful for all the unconditional love she poured into me.
When I went to boarding school, which only allows students to go home once a month, she would always stand aside from the mountain road that my bus would pass by to wait for me. Back then, there was no phone, and buses always arrived late. But she never failed to show up for me. Nowadays, when I sometimes feel unloved, the image of her waiting for me on the mountaintop always comes to mind, reminding me I was dearly loved. Another thing that touched me deeply was when I told her about my dream to study in the United States; she encouraged me to do what I felt was right. Although she did not know where it was and knew I didn’t have the money at all, her unconditional faith and love in me encouraged me tremendously. Now, whenever I go back to visit, she cooks my favorite food and talks about moments of my childhood. According to my therapist, my grandmother fulfilled the mother role for me in many ways.
My boarding high school was in a city where half of my classmates were kids from the city, which meant they grew up with their parents in the city. Their parents could come to visit any time they wanted, and these students could go home every weekend. Rural students like me would only go home once a month, and no parents or grandparents would come to visit due to the long-distance traffic and expense. In some ways, two of my best friends’ moms served as my mom, too. They would bring a portion of good food for me whenever they came to visit. I sometimes was also invited to stay with the family for the weekend. Back then, the food they provided was much better than the meals I could pay for at the school. In our dorms, there was no shower facility or washing machines; their home naturally became my go-to place for showering and clothes washing. One mom bought the same pair of clothes for my friend and me on graduation day, which my parents couldn’t attend. Although I had to be away from my parents and grandparents during my teenage years, I felt so loved by the people around me and never felt a victim of poverty due to their kindness and generosity.
After high school, I moved to a coastal city thousands of miles away from my hometown, far away from my grandparents. Without any friends in a city of unfamiliar culture, languages, and food, I felt lonely and homesick for quite an extended period. What made things worse was my poorly spoken English. Although English was a required subject in high school, we only focused on reading and writing, which were the main contents of our college entrance English exam. My university offered some great opportunities for students to study overseas, which all required an interview in English. I found that I couldn’t speak a complete sentence in English. I always had to do the “Chinese to English” translation in my head before opening my mouth. In the first two years of college, my speech didn’t get any better, and I felt so frustrated that my overseas studying dream was appearing out of reach.
Finally, in the first English class of my junior year, a middle-aged lady walked in with a smiling face and introduced herself in an amicable way. I immediately felt very close to her and mustered all my courage to tell her I wanted to improve my spoken English; I shared my past two years’ struggle. She listened to me and told me to meet her in her office to talk. This short conversation turned out to be the turning point of my life. She told me the only way to improve is through hard work, and then she shared a variety of approaches with me. One of them was to record me reading a short paragraph every week and send it to her. She would later listen to it and correct the words I pronounced wrong. I would then go back to practice, again and again, then pronounce the words in front of her. She spent many hours of her time with me. More importantly, my motivation soared when someone had placed her faith in me. I fell in love with learning and writing English, and we became very close friends. Later, she formed an English learning small group for students like me to meet regularly and speak in English. We all became good friends. She became the mother and friend to all of us. I would discuss all of my important decisions with her.
I remember at the end of my junior year she asked me what I wanted to do in the future. I told her I probably would consider graduate school, but I was not sure which province in China. She said she thought I might like to study abroad because that is what I told her in the first class where we met. I told her I was looking for an exchange program sponsored by my university, but they didn’t fund graduate studies abroad. I didn’t have a penny for this. She then told me that most universities abroad provide scholarships for graduate students. That conversation inspired me and helped me land in the United States after only one year. My story is a powerful testimony of what a mother-like teacher can do for her students. Now, I have myself become a professor like her; I enjoy my students so much. I am trying to become a teacher like she was to me.
Arriving in the US for graduate school, again, it was such a strange land now that food, culture, and people’s faces were entirely different. I didn’t remember seeing a church and had never gone to a church in China. In this US city, I saw so many. One day, a Chinese friend asked me if I wanted to go to church. Out of curiosity, I said yes. I didn’t have a car, so I was picked up that Sunday by a van driven by a very friendly and elegant older woman. I was surprised because I seldom saw a female driver, not to mention an older one, driving a car in my country 12 years ago. I remembered that I saw a Bible for the first time in my life, and I enjoyed the choir a lot. I liked the people in the church, they were so kind and supportive. That lady then invited us to her house for lunch; it was the first house in the United States I had set foot in. It was artistically beautiful.
I later realized most of the things in her house have a loving background story. She has a shelf of cards from friends, the students and visiting scholars she had hosted worldwide. I was not surprised to see all the cards because her loving-kindness to everyone is so genuine. Her cooking was the best I ever knew; more importantly, she always cooks for others, including people in hospitals, international students, and those in need. I didn’t convert to Christianity during the years I lived in town. I was still frequently invited to her house to chat or have a meal. When I was heartbroken, I would go to her crying like a girl who got bullied by life, running to her loving mother. She would comfort me with love and wisdom and surely feed me well. Her husband was also a man of great integrity, kindness, and love. I love them both so profoundly and indeed called them Mom and Papa. Sadly, Papa passed away a few years ago. When Mom texted me the news, I cried my eyes out in my car. I was so sad to lose him, and I was so heartbroken to see Mom’s heart was also broken. These two were so in love with each other, and I knew how much she would miss him.
In recent years, I’ve visited Mom once a year. When I came to the living room, a breakfast feast would be on the table every morning. She would cook my favorite waffles and supply homemade pomegranate jam. With her, I felt so unconditionally loved. All this time I have been on my own, but when I’m with her, I am a spoiled little girl. Mom is a faithful Christian. I used to tell her that I felt the closest to God when I was with her. Now I am a Christian. Sometimes, I think she is God’s angel to love me and guide me. Earlier this year, she sent me a pile of old recipe books and a magazine page from 50 years ago. When I flipped over the pages of the recipe books, I felt her love. I laminated the magazine page with two heavenly messages titled “In times like this” and “There is sunshine in a smile” and posted it on my refrigerator. At the start of each new day, I would glimpse my angel’s message before getting breakfast from the refrigerator.
There are many other great women I met and will still meet. I am grateful for all of them. Although this lengthy message is so short compared to their love for me, I would like to take it as an opportunity to say: I love you all, and Happy Mother’s Day!
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