Meeting Father Zhang
"We are going to have a French teacher!" I grabbed Rui Yins arm excitedly and whispered as I sat down. It was her turn to wait and fight for the few precious library seats. She was sturdily built and could usually push through the crowd of students waiting for the library door to open at 7:30 p.m. On that humid and hot evening in 1979, we were sophomores majoring in English at Anhui Teachers University in Wuhu City, China.
It was mandatory to learn a second foreign language in order to graduate. Rui Yin and I had signed up for French, but for more than a year the university had not been able to find a teacher.
"Really?" she screamed.
"Shh. You are getting us kicked out." I caught the annoyed glances from those sitting around us and wrote on my notebook for her: I went home for dinner. Party Secretary Ling was asking my father to test this French teacher tomorrow. My father said that he was an English professor. She said that it didn't matter because he was the only one who knew any French.
The next Tuesday morning, we anxiously awaited our first French lesson. A frail old hunchback with pure white hair walked slowly into the classroom. He stood quietly at the podium, staring down at the ground.
The students looked at each other, not knowing what to make of the new teachers behavior. After a few minutes, he opened his mouth to say something, but the words disappeared before they reached his throat. Two strings of tears rolled slowly down his wrinkled cheeks like pearls.
"Stu...dents," he stuttered, "for...give me...for...talking...like...this. I...have...not talked...to...humans...for...almost...30... years. My...last...name...is...Zhang." He wiped off tears with his sleeve and bowed.
The classroom was so quiet that I heard a lone cricket chirping outside. Someone asked timidly, "Teacher Zhang, who have you been talking to, then?"
"God," he said. The students burst into laughter. Religion of any kind, especially Catholicism, had been purged since the Communist takeover in 1949. It was the first time we heard anyone say the word God in a serious tone.
"Where have you been talking to God?" Someone else asked, semi-mockingly.
"Pri...son." Another short and labored answer.
"Ah...." We were taken aback and remained silent for the rest of the class.
I found out later that Zhang went to prison because he was a Catholic priest. He had been locked up in a single cell almost all those years. His belief in God kept him alive. He was assigned a teaching post at our university after he got out of prison.
His French, learned some 40 years ago, was almost forgotten. He would often stop in mid-sentence, trying to remember a word or phrase. Nevertheless, nobody complained about his teaching.
I developed a special admiration for him. My mother was the youngest of eight children in her family. Her brother and sister introduced her to Catholicism in 1946.
My Third Uncle was a famous historian who specialized in religious studies. In 1952 he was tortured and kept in a cell so small that he could only sit.
My Second Aunt was a promising 26-year-old medical student when she went to prison in 1951 for her belief. She stayed in a single cell for about the same length of time as Teacher Zhang. In those solitary years, she took apart a knitted white sock, knotted the threads into a rosary and prayed.
After Second Aunts arrest, my grandmother wept day and night until she nearly went blind. Even when she was dying of cancer in 1964, they didnt have a chance to meet for one last time.
My mother maintained her belief in God. When my father was sent to prison for criticizing the regime at the Institute of International Relations in Beijing, she told the authorities that persecuting my father was like killing Jesus on the cross.
My Fourth Uncle was not a Catholic. In 1966, the Red Guards accused him of being a secret Catholic priest, beating him terribly in an attempt to make him confess to a nonexistent crime. He escaped and tried to commit suicide by jumping into the Yellow River. A fisherman pulled him ashore. The Red Guards were furious. They forced him to sit in a chair and hit big iron nails through his palms. Eventually, he went insane.
A few weeks after Zhang arrived, my father was fully rehabilitated as a professor of English. My mother and younger brother moved back to Beijing with him. The day before they left, Mom took me aside.
"Maomao, keep this." She pressed her string of rosary beads in my hands. We never talked about religion, but I knew she was a Catholic. It was the only religious item she was able to save after the Red Guards ransacked our apartment so many times. She hid it in a section of a broken bamboo broom handle. Religious activities took place only secretly. It was not possible to buy the Bible or any other religious items in China.
"Mom, you keep it."
She patted my hands without a word. I put it carefully in my pocket.
A few months later, Zhang was diagnosed with liver cancer. I went to see him in the hospital with several classmates. It was a warm and clear autumn day. Falling leaves danced in the wind and landed by the sidewalk to rot.
He looked pale. The little that remained of his white hair lay loosely on the pillow. We did not know what to say and just stood by his bedside for a while. As soon as we were out of the room, Rui Yin and I started to cry. We knew that it might be the last visit.
"I left my book in his room. I will run to fetch it and catch up with you," I said once we were on the street.
I closed the door behind me and knelt by his bedside. I took out the rosary beads slowly and pressed it in his hand.
"Father Zhang...." I couldnt hold back my tears.
"Oh.... "There was a spark of excitement in his eyes, tears sinking into the pillow.
"My mother is. Please keep this."
"God...bless...you, my...child." He lifted the back of his shaking hand toward my face. The distended veins on his hands looked like those on dry leaves.
For more than 20 years, I have been haunted by his image. I wondered what made him and all other Catholics in China endure those years of sufferings. Was there a God?
I finally decided to find out last year. I started participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. I learned, among other things, that Father Zhang had meant for me to kiss his hand that day as in a Catholic ceremony. All he received then were drops of my tears.
I will be baptized this Easter.
May I kiss your hand when we meet again, Father Zhang?