“Most people in China are faithless,” a high school teacher in the city of Yangshou told me when I asked him about religion in his country. Dave and I spent four days biking and hiking in the scenic countryside around Yangshou, in China’s Guangxi province. Our guide was a kind-hearted, sincere twenty-four year old woman named Rong. ‘Faithless’ is not a word I would use to describe her.
Rong was fifteen when she ventured outside her small farming village for the first time. Her family desperately wanted to send her younger brother to school, in hopes that educating him would lead to a better life for them all. So Rong, unable to read or write, and hampered by blindness in one eye, decided to walk nearly 20 kilometers to Yangshou to get a job. She taught herself English, earned enough money to buy her own bicycle, and brought in sufficient income to pay her brother’s tuition at the local secondary school.
Rong offered us her services as a guide when we first stepped off the river boat at Yangshou. After we had toured together for two days, she still hadn’t requested any payment, so we gave her money. She had simply trusted we would do so. Each morning of our visit she arose at 4 am and pedaled from her family farm to the city. She had faith we would be there to meet her and employ her for the day. We couldn’t have asked for a more helpful and encouraging person to navigate us across the rugged local terrain. Rong’s bike carrier was always filled with produce from her mother’s garden for our lunch. She prepared these meals, and we ate them, at the homes of her friends who generously opened their doors to us, if we happened to be in their village at meal time.
I asked Rong about her family’s religious practices. She told me her mother went to a Buddhist temple, but it was a long walk, so she couldn’t go often. All the homes we visited with Rong had shrines to ancestors. She said incense was burned there in special monthly ceremonies. One day as we sat on the banks of the Dragon River I asked her if she believed in God. She looked puzzled. I gestured at the mountains and water. “Who do you think made all this?” She laughed and began telling me folktales about the dragon digging the riverbed with his tail, and how the mountains had grown tall from the bottom of the sea. I wondered what she thought happened to people when they died. “We dig a hole in the ground and put them inside,” she said. “Then we have a big party.”
During all the time we spent with Rong she always had a smile on her face and an upbeat lilt to her voice. Yet her home had no running water and a dirt floor. Her family shared a small living space with chickens, dogs and two water buffalo. Rong’s western style clothes were cast offs from tourists. Her mother used her sewing skills to re-make them to fit Rong. When I asked, she told me her partial blindness was caused by a childhood accident. At the time her family had no money to pay for medical help. She didn’t get an education because her village has no school. Despite this Rong displays remarkable intelligence. She’s learned English just by listening to tourists. One day she asked me if teachers were the richest people in Canada. I said there were other jobs where the pay was higher. She smiled and commented, “But you are lucky, because teachers are rich in knowledge.”
Each morning when we met Rong she would be talking and laughing with two other young guides. These girls were her support network. It was evident they protected each others’ interests and kept a watchful eye to make sure they were being treated properly by their clients. They shared food, water, laughter and their bicycles. They worried about one another’s safety riding home late at night on the winding rocky roads. When I asked Rong one day what made her happy, she replied without hesitation, “Good friends.”
Rong demonstrated an enviable and admirable faith in friends, family and indeed in all of human kind. On the plane back to Hong Kong I asked my husband Dave if he thought Rong had sensed we were people of faith because of the way we had treated her. Then we looked at each other, smiled, and knew what the other was thinking before either of us spoke the words. Rong was the one who had treated us in the most “Christ-like” manner imaginable. I could never call her faithless.
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