The sixteenth report from a Catholic living in Wuhan, China.
Each time I meet Dr Deng Chongzhen at Holy Family Church in Wuhan, it turns out to be a refreshing and entertaining experience. Her lively personality at the age of 86 ensures that all who meet her are treated to a unique combination of questions, opinions, news, humorous comments as well as an occasional reminder of some point of orthodoxy in the Catholic faith. Her direct style of communication is often accompanied by rhetorical questions that ensure the agreement of the listener, such agreement encouraging her to begin tapping the elbow of the listener at regular intervals to make her various points with increased emphasis. The physical contact also serves as a reminder for the listener to stay alert as she explains how the world is as it is.
A popular member of the parish, she endears herself to people wherever she goes. During the summer months, Wuhan's appropriately ascribed reputation as a furnace city encourages her to make a daily visit to the nearby bank. Her motivation for the daily outing is not to process a financial transaction but rather to sit in the comfort of the air-conditioned premises for several hours, her prolonged genial presence at the institution allowing her to become friendly with staff members during that time of the year.
On the evening before the COVID-19 restrictions came into effect in Wuhan, she had kindly invited me to join her family for an early celebration of the new year at a restaurant near her home. On that evening we never expected that we were on the verge of such huge changes in China, changes that have unfortunately carved a rough path of sorrow through most countries in the world. During phone calls over subsequent weeks I complimented Dr Deng on her timing of the new year meal, arranged just ahead of events that have already given this year its unforgettable place in history.
With the recent easing of restrictions in Wuhan and the surrounding areas, Dr Deng contacted me last week with another invitation to a meal. Again, it was a family event, one that sounded just as important for her as our previous gathering. The latest invitation was one that she had been hoping to send out for several weeks but was unable to do so because of the restrictions. This event was linked to her grandson. A few months ago, through her active involvement, her grandson was introduced to a young woman, their meeting clearly understood to contain the possibility that a romance might develop. Her encouragement for their initial meeting guaranteed that she maintained more than a passing interest in what was happening.
One of her early comments to me a few months ago was accompanied by her youthful smile and some tapping of my elbow, the overall message being that she was deeply pleased with her initiative in the whole undertaking and with how things had developed since the couple met for the first time. Her observation was filled with uncluttered logic as she summed it all up in a jovial combination of Chinese and English, "he likes her, she likes him, thanks God!" She then moved on quickly to ask me about how soon did I think they could get married, a willingness to make such a commitment being seen as confirmation of another important contribution by her to the life of the extended family. In response, I affirmed her in the good things that had already happened and expressed the hope that possibilities would unfold in a life-giving way.
A coincidence in these developments is that during previous visits to the church in Xiantao, one hour west of Wuhan, I had met the mother of the young woman who has been introduced to Dr Deng's grandson. This did not go unnoticed by the attentive medic and as time went by I sensed that I was being gently prepared for a satellite role in proceedings. The world as seen from Dr Deng's perspective meant that my presence at a first meal between the two families would serve as an affirmation to what was gradually happening for the young couple.
The meal for a few members of each family was scheduled for Friday of last week. Dr Deng was the organiser of the visiting group from Wuhan to the village near Xiantao. Arriving at the family's home, she took on a lead role to ensure a pleasant atmosphere as she met her hosts for the first time, her years of experience shining through and resulting in the careful weaving of many strands of life into a seamless day, an art form that would rival anything expressed in the classical literature that has shaped the ancient culture of this people.
In the midst of these unfolding events, although the young couple have not announced an engagement, Dr Deng asked me in front of the host family if I though they were a good match. I answered in a supportive way, presumably the expected response seeing that she had invited me to the meal. As various conversations took place between people who were meeting for the first time in a humble home, it was announced that the electricity in the village was turned off for the whole day, news that didn't cause as much as a moment of disturbance for anyone. This collective wisdom of the people in this area to avoid relying on electricity for cooking could be seen in the way preparations for the meal continued uninterrupted in the kitchen on gas stoves, their efforts producing a superb meal, such standards expected among people in China even if all else is less that would be hoped for in life.
At different times in the afternoon various people visited the family home for a few minutes. The young woman introduced Dr Deng's grandson as a friend, not a boyfriend, the difference in the public announcement obviously having its own meaning, even if one member of the older generation may already have her keen eyes fixed on a possible date for a wedding. Later in the afternoon an opportunity arose for discreet questions to be asked of one local priest about the expectations in the area if a wedding were to take place.
It was interesting to observe how the shared experience of the Catholic faith was seen as a bonus by both families, indicating a level of trust already existed for them in a setting where a mere fraction of the general population belongs to any Christian denomination. However, the relaxed atmosphere should not be assumed to mean that other issues of mutual interest were neglected. In the weeks prior to the meeting of the families, some direct questions were asked by both sides to independent observers about the situation of the other family, presumably the questions asked so as to put the enquiring side at ease about the other.
On the day of the fine meal, gifts in stylish bags from recognisable shops in Wuhan were brought by Dr Deng and her grandson to the family in the village, their approach reflecting the visiting family's generosity as well as the huge changes in the city over the past 20 years. The young woman's family also expressed its appreciation for the visit with gifts that were given to Dr Deng and her grandson later in the day as the visit concluded. These gifts were also in bags, but bags of a different kind, ones that reflected their area of the province, large assorted fabrics overflowing with home grown vegetables as well as a sack of rice that will certainly carry the city family well beyond even the worst predictions of the coronavirus episode.
At one level the day was very relaxed. There had been very little emphasis in dressing in a particularly special way for the occasion. However, close attention was paid to all that happened as the families met for the first time in the home on the main street of the village. The visit eventually concluded at the door of the young woman's family home with kind words expressed on both sides as well as Dr Deng assuring the family that she would soon arrange for them to visit Wuhan for a similar meal. A final few words of thanks were exchanged and then the voice of experience gave the instruction that they were on their way, her parting words signalling their turning for home as she led her delegation on its return to the city.
As expected, Dr Deng's good humour and affirmation of the young woman's family ensured that all went smoothly throughout the day. While this 86-year-old doctor consistently expresses a light-hearted approach to life, many people also know that she has seen her own share of difficulties in the past. As a young doctor she was a member of the Legion of Mary and as a time of big change emerged here, such membership was followed by a non-negotiable 11 years of working on a farm. During that time she was able to get married. Then the premature birth of her first child took place in difficult circumstances resulting in a life of severe physical limitations for her son. Two other sons were born in the following years. Her first son died last year leaving a widow and a son, this son being the focus of Dr Deng's attentions in the matchmaking efforts of recent months, all of it culminating in the important visit to the home of the young woman's family.
In the short time since last week's meal for the two families, it seems that the doctor may need to be complimented again for her good timing in arranging a social gathering. The past couple of days have brought the unwelcome news that a cluster of new coronavirus cases has emerged in Wuhan. Needless to say, this has caused people to gasp at the possibility of what it may involve at a time when the city seemed to be leading the way in the overall recovery in China. Tentative plans are now being discussed for the testing of over ten million people in Wuhan, an immense task if it is to take place. People in the city are already talking about their intentions to curtail their modest movements. Once again, a change of atmosphere is descending on the city. It seems that we may be turning the clock back to where we were in January.
Perhaps the wisdom of the older generation is what we need to listen to at a time of uncertainty. The senior generation, far from being just a group who are vulnerable to the coronavirus, can also reveal its resilience and experience in times of uncertainty for the benefit of the whole community as it draws deeply on its well-earned wisdom and faith. As a meal with Dr Deng and others revealed to some of us last week, even in the midst of a shutdown, the opportunity is still there to maintain a focus on the importance of family. For some people, even in advanced age, it can include a good-natured role with the angels of romance in the hope that yet another contribution can be made to the younger generation. During the next few months one elderly Catholic in Wuhan will continue to cooperate with those angels in her hope of producing yet another personally authored flourish in the life of her family. Without yet knowing what may transpire, she is likely to accept whatever will happen in this latest episode of her eventful life by saying yet again with her playful smile and a tap on the elbow of her listener, "thanks God!"
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