Sweat trickled down my face and back as we sat on the thinly padded benches of the old bus. We were in Shanghai, China, traveling to meet a friend’s extended family. It must have been close to 100 degrees outside as well as inside that bus, even with all the windows down – there was little to no breeze. I closed my eyes willing the driver to get started.
A minor commotion outside caught my attention. I opened my eyes and realized my husband, Kevin, was no longer sitting next to me. My eyes moved toward the voices that had grown slightly louder. The bus driver was shaking his head emphatically at a young man who couldn’t have been more than 16 or 17 years old. Surprised, I watched as Kevin entered the fray, handing something to the young man which seemed to end the encounter. As he did, the driver climbed back onto the bus and into the driver’s seat. A moment later Kevin followed.
“What just happened?” I asked.
“That young man lost his ticket and didn’t have money to purchase another one,” Kevin explained. “The driver was refusing to let him board the bus, so I bought him another ticket.”
I looked over at the door as the young man boarded the bus, but his problems were far from over. His clothes told the story. Dirty and frayed, he clearly had very little. As he passed the bench where we were seated, Kevin rose to follow him, hoping to talk with him further. As if on cue, the other passengers in the bus, stuck out their arms and legs to prevent Kevin’s advance as they expressed their disdain for the young man as if he wasn’t even there.
“He’s too dirty!”
“He’s just a peasant…”
“Don’t bother with him…”
I looked to the back of the bus, where the teen had been relegated by the other passengers. With his head bowed, he avoided eye contact. Kevin continued to press forward in an attempt to reach him, only to encounter more stern opposition. The strong social class rule would have none of our meddling. Finally, Kevin returned to our seat unsuccessful.
“I want to talk with him,” Kevin stated. “Let’s pray.”
The bus finally started as we prayed over the strange situation. We asked God to make a way.
Over the next three hours, the bus stopped a multitude of times as passengers disembarked and others boarded. Each time, we scanned the group of those that exited, but the boy was not among them. Our stop was at the very end of the line, and we doubted the young man would actually stay on the bus for the entire duration of that long, hot journey. But that’s exactly what happened. At the end of the line, all remaining passengers stood to exit. That’s when I saw the young man make his way to the front, actually exiting before us.
We were close behind and quickly caught up. Now that we were off the bus, no one seemed to care. Busy with their own lives, the other passengers ignored us as they gathered their belongings from the storage compartments and each headed off to their own world.
The bus had deposited us just outside the main part of the city, which actually meant we had a 15-20 minute walk down a dirt road just to get back to town! What seemed like a rather stupid arrangement afforded us the perfect opportunity to talk with this young man. Kevin began to ask him questions. “Do you have family in Shanghai?” “How old are you?” “Where are you going?
Although unwilling to look at us, “Wang” responded to our questions and began to share his story. It was a familiar story for those in his situation.
His family lived in a different part of the country. Peasants living in a rural area, they had little education, little money, and little opportunity to change their plight. Their one hope was to send their son, who was only 17, to a more profitable region in the hope that he would be able to obtain work and send money back for the rest of the family. It was a huge responsibility for one so young.
“Would you join us for dinner?” Kevin asked him as we entered the city and came upon a small noodle restaurant. He wavered for a moment and then nodded. My heart went out to him. For one so young, he was already old in the knowledge that life could be cruel. The restaurant was a simple structure of cement walls and a dirt floor with plain round tables surrounded by three-legged seats. As we made our way to one of the tables, the waitress addressed our new friend.
“You don’t belong here. Get out,” she instructed him forcibly.
I was shocked and realized the waitress assumed he was a beggar hitting on the foreigners.
“He’s cheating you. Just ignore him,” she stated to us as she glared at him with disdain.
Instead, we chose to ignore her and sat down as she handed us each a menu. She continued criticizing Wang the entire time. It was perplexing and infuriating. This was a very inexpensive, common establishment. To put it into perspective, think McDonald’s. Yet, they felt this poor boy didn’t fit in. The strong social class rule was exerting itself in a way I had not yet seen in China.
After the waitress had taken our order, we tried to draw Wang back into conversation. His answers were quiet, but at least he was talking with us. Once the waitress returned with our bowls, she placed one down in front of him and continued her verbal assault.
“Leave him alone,” I told her firmly. “He’s our friend.”
As I said it, I looked at Wang. He didn’t look up, but I noticed tears splash into his bowl of noodles. The waitress didn’t bother us further.
Wang kept his head bent over his bowl, and the slurping of noodles was the only sound at our table for the next several minutes. Once finished, he stood to go.
“Can we talk with you further?” Kevin asked. Wang nodded, and he and I walked outside as Kevin paid the bill and joined us. Fortunately, the sky was growing dark, making it easy to find an unoccupied bench to the side of some shops away from prying eyes and wagging tongues.
For the next half-hour, uninterrupted, we shared with him about Jesus. When we finished he finally spoke, “My grandmother is a Christian. She prays for me.”
I smiled knowing her prayers had been effective. We sensed at that moment we were the answer to her prayers to reach her grandson. Before we separated, we were able to lead him to Christ. For the first time, he really looked at us…and he smiled.
This is our 27th year working in China. My husband first landed in Beijing, the capital of China, just two months after the fateful Tian’An Men Square student protest that left the world stunned and an unknown number of Chinese students dead. On a scale of one to ten, (ten being high) the political tension across the nation at that time was at least eleven. We have watched as much has changed over the years: culturally, economically, and politically. But one thing has remained the same, and it’s what continues to draw us back to China time and again—the people. China is home to 1.3 billion people or one-fifth of the world’s population. It is estimated that only 1 percent have been reached with the gospel.
People like our friend Wang.