Characters followed before, but no more.

• Mary, the Christian scientist
• Yi-jung, a Taiwanese in Beijing

Mary, married

Congratulations to Mary, just married. She met and got to know her groom to be – Adam, an American pastor in training – in Wenling, Zhejiang last year and they’ve had an internet relationship ever since. I always did wonder why she was online on Skype quite so much.

It was a simple Christian ceremony, held in a private restaurant room by an American priest flown up from Hong Kong – in Chinese (including translations of Christian hymns … Ni Zhen Wei Da! for How Great Thou Art!), presumably for the benefit of Mary’s parents and much to the chagrin of Adam’s mum who had to follow the bilingual program.

Mary and Adam are now off to honeymoon in Thailand before settling in Wuhan. I wish them every happiness, and wonder if they will still be living in China in six or seven years. This will be the last post on this blog about Mary.

Over lunch with Mary the other day, she asked if Indian women really lead horrible lives. She’d read an article and seen some pictures along those lines … like this one:

Well, I’ve no idea of what life is like for women in India, but I think it’s interesting that that’s how they’re portrayed on a Chinese website – and how that view of Indian society filters through to Mary. Beijing-based journalist Pallavi Aiyar in her book Smoke and Mirrors talks about on-the-street Chinese impressions of Indian women being, in order: 1. surely they all sing and dance like in the films? 2. isn’t it very dirty there?

In any case, it got us talking about gender equality in China – the greatest legacy of the Mao era, after millenia of patriarchy. (Though there’s a Chinese proverb from way back in the day – yin sheng yang shuai – female strength/superiority over male.) I always thought that equality between the sexes was something admirable in modern Chinese society.

Then Mary told me of her job application last March to a coal mining engineering company. He had a strong CV, good experience etc. etc. But they told her outright that they didn’t want a girl. Their reasons were equally forthcoming: some kind of unease of sending women down the coal shafts, and also the other role was filled by a guy – meaning a separate dormitory had to be set up, at added cost to them.

She has a female friend who had almost exactly the same experience … and who has a boyfriend with exactly the same qualifications as them who got the job. So it’s depressing to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

West of Shangri-la in southwesterly Yunnan province, a remote corner of the Tibetan plateau borders Burma. It’s comprised mostly of the Lisu and Nu minorities: who together number just thousands in China’s billion plus population. This is China at its most different to the smoggy, swotty university district of Beijing. And it’s where Mary spent her spring festival break.

She and friends spent a week moving from village to village – with such colourful names as Wawa – bringing the children medical supplies, basic hygiene lessons, and musical evenings. This was a combined effort of two non-profit organisations, MCC and HAND, but the initiative behind the trip was all Mary’s. Coming back to Beijing, though, she couldn’t help feeling sad:

I wanted to help, but felt helpless. You can bring one happy day [to the children] but then you go … It makes me appreciate my life more.

It’s needless to say this is a very poor region of China. And Mary rubbed up against it’s more pitiful side: helping children with disabilities in particular. She also described seeing three very sick elderly women, one of whom they suspected had breat cancer. But they couldn’t take her to hospital, as their medically trained consultant was already on his way to Kunming.

Coming face to face with suffering like this is something I would have imagined would test a Christian’s faith. Not Mary’s. Or those she was helping. Roughly 70% of the region’s population is Christian, thanks to the missionaries set up in the early twentieth century by the Brit James Fraser. Is this one of the reasons the area appealed to Mary? Did she find it especially rewarding to help those of the same faith as her? I’ll ask next time I can … or if you’re reading this, Mary, reply in the comments!

A final footnote is one of Mary’s comments on living with the Lisu and Nu minorities. She noticed at several points babies playing near fires while their parents didn’t intervene. This, she felt, was a result partly of poverty (wholly, in my less informed opinion) but partly a genuine difference between theirs and the Han Chinese ethnicity. “Han take care of their children.”

Mary: the Christian scientist

This is the fourth of six posts introducing the six ‘heros and heroines’ (and sometimes villains?) of this blog.

Mary, from Dalian, is in the final year of her master’s degree in Mining Spatial Information and Subsidence Engineering at a technical university in north-west Beijing. To give an idea of just how over-my-head her subject flies, her Bachelor’s thesis was titled “The Monitoring and Evaluation of Ecological Damage Based on Remote Sensing in Typical Mining in Mentougou District”.

She is also a Christian – among the already large, and rapidly growing, number of converts in China. It’s a number which proves difficult to pin down: somewhere around the 50 million mark is a good bet.

Mary keeps herself busy: besides her rigourous studies, she tutors Mandarin, volunteered on a charity camp in Yunnan this winter break (more on this to come) and is applying for a competitive PhD spot in foreign universities in the US and Finland. I wonder sometimes if it all gets on top of her.

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