My mother suddenly announced that she now believed in Jesus, in a tone of a three-year-old declaring herself a grownup.
My siblings and I were as shocked as amused by her announcement. How would a Hakka woman as traditional as my mother fit in with Christians? How could one who knows nothing about Christianity become a Christian out of blue? And why?
Out of curiosity, I followed her to a Bible study group on an April afternoon in 2016. It was at the home of a church member, half a kilometer from my parents’ house in Heyuan City, Guangdong Province.
Hardly had I entered the wide-open gate, when an old woman in her late seventies shot her hand in front of me and shouted, “sister, for you!”
She was giving me two small packets of wafer biscuits. Taken by surprise, I was not sure if I should accept the gift from a stranger, when another old woman, also in her seventies, explained to me, “her great-grandson was born today.”
Before I got a chance to congratulate her, the new great grandmother shot her hand to my mother, “sister, for you!”
So both my mother and I are her sisters?
My mother took the wafer biscuits with a take-it-for-granted smile as she glanced around the room, looking for empty seats. Then she took my hand and walked to two empty plastic stools against the east wall of the room. By then, the 20-square-meter rectangular room was almost full – full of grey hair, bleary eyes, withered cheeks, toothless mouths and callused hands. There were 30 people, all of whom except one were women and three quarters over 60 years old. The group leader was a middle-aged woman who had the look of a strict elementary school teacher. As she sat on a stool higher than ours at the front of the room, surveying the room, another woman in her forties announced in Hakka, “open your books and turn to hymn 312.”
Most women looked around confused. Several repeated “312” loudly. Sounds of fumbling books filled the room but was soon replaced by a medley of Hakka voices singing out of tune.
I looked around and was as amused as shocked to see thirty toothless or semi-toothless mouths gaping open and closing, thirty black holes spitting a volley of untuned music notes in Hakka. A volley of wishes for health, fortune, peace and grandsons. I turned to look at my mother. She was looking down at the book, singing like a mosquito. Born a shy person and still new to Christianity, she was probably feeling uncomfortable to sing out loud with a group of strangers. But most other women were singing at the top of their lungs like a group of elementary school kids singing after their favourite teacher.
After three hymns came the prayer. A woman prayed loudly in Hakka with such passion that it sounded like a broken piano being hit by many stones at the same time. The voice at least kept the women awake, who ended the prayer with “Amen! As wished and with loyalty!”
With that, the group leader started the preach of the day and talked about forgiving. In less than fifteen minutes, a third of the women started dozing off, including my mother. I nudged her arm. She started and grinned guiltily. She needn’t have felt guilty at all. The monotonous preaching was nothing new and it was what my parents had taught me when I was a kid. I myself would have dozed off if I had not been interested in observing my mother’s fellow Christians. Both my mother and I were relieved when the sermon was over after almost two hours sitting on a plastic stool.
“Do you agree with what the preacher said?” I asked my mother right after we left the gathering.
“I agree,” my mother said earnestly, “we should forgive.”
“So are you going to forgive Mrs Miao?”
Mrs. Miao had been our next door neighbour for decades, a very difficult woman who hated my mother for no reason and had caused quite some dramas over the years. She died unexpectedly the day before.
My mother was taken by surprise, then laughed embarrassedly, “oh, dear, I can’t forgive Miao. No, I really can’t forgive her!”
I laughed, too, about my mother’s childlike honesty.
When I asked her if she would continue to go to church, she told me about Chong, Mrs Miao’s niece.
Chong joined the church ten years ago. She sings hymns all the time. She sings when cleaning. She sings when cooking. She sings when walking. She would sing when eating if she had two mouths. Chong, who was a grumpy wife and mother, is now a very happy person. “Jesus makes her happy,” my mother said admiringly. But I doubt Jesus would make my mother as happy as Chong because she wouldn’t be satisfied until all her children were happily married and all her children, particularly her son, have their own children – sons preferred.
A month later, I went to Heyuan Gospel Church with my mother. It is a church founded by two German priests in 1897, now registered under China’s Religious Affairs Bureau, with over 3000 members. The gathering here was a much bigger version of my mother’s Bible study group. Over three quarters of the members were women older than 60. The preaching (about husband-wife relationship this time) was again monotonous and long. A few women chitchatted in a low voice. Some dozed off. My mother was obviously bored and from time to time looked around searching for familiar faces. Three months after joining the church, she had not made new friends yet.
“What do you think?” I asked my mother when we walked out of the church.
“I agree with him (the preacher). But he is too long winded. He circles round and round, saying the same thing over and over again.” Then she added with an amused look, “those illiterate women follow the Bible better than me. ”
Back home, I asked my father why he didn’t go to church, he replied, “gee, most church goers are older women. Besides, the Bible contradicts Marxism and evolutionism I was taught as a Communist Party member. It is hard to change a belief you acquired at a young age. And the Christians are not that different from the red guards worshipping Mao during the Cultural Revolution.”
My mother gave me a different answer, “one goes to church, Jesus blesses the whole family. Your father needn’t go.”
I later found it was actually my father’s idea that my mother should go to church. He got this idea after a neighbour, Mrs. Chen told him that Jesus visited her in a dream when she was very sick several years ago, “He asked me, ‘are you feeling better today?’ The next day, I felt much better. Not long after that, I got out of hospital. Jesus blesses me!”
So my mother, who had never read the Bible and knew nothing about Christianity, started going to church, at my father’s suggestion.
Quite a surprise. But an understandable surprise.
My parents were both born before communism took over China, but they were taught Marxism (China version) and evolutionism at school, expecting progress in all aspects of life only to witness regress in both the society and their personal lives: corruption and social injustice in the big world despite the rapid progress in sciences and technologies, ageing and ailing in their small world. What bothers them the most, however, is that they still don’t have a grandson while some of their cousins are now great-grandparents. By the way, my sisters’ children don’t count as only my brother’s son could carry on the family line according to Chinese Hakka tradition.
Sometimes they blame our family’s Fengshui. They invited several Fengshui masters to inspect our home over the years. They followed a couple Fengshui masters’ advice and moved our house gate twice. This didn’t bring luck to the family as wished. Three years ago, another Fengshui master suggested our gate be moved (again!) to where my mother’s bedroom was. Fortunately, my parents didn’t follow this advice.
My mother also sought blessings from a local Taoist temple as well as from a sorceress. So far, nothing fantastic has happened as my parents wish. They continue to age and ail. My mother hurt her back in 2015. My father was diagnosed with lung cancer the same year. Two of their children are still single. They still have no grandson to carry on the family line.
They must feel helpless sometimes. So when my father heard about “the magic” Jesus did to their neighbour, he made my mother go to church. He refrains himself from Christianity so that he can still worship our ancestors. This way, we might be double blessed. This is how my parents do their math of life.
They are not alone when it comes to doing math of life. When asked to join the church, the mother of a friend of mine from Yunnan Province did her math and found the time she was to spend at the church and learning the Bible equaled a loss because she couldn’t work on the farm or in the house. Loss of working time, loss of income. She decided against the membership of the Village Communist Party Committee for the same reason. The small gifts from the Party are not worth the fee she would have to pay to the Party and the loss of her time, she told her son.
When my mother announced her new religion, my sister said in an amused tone, “so from now on we won’t worship our ancestors on Chinese New Year?” (It is commonly believed among my mother’s fellow Christians that once converted to Christianity, one should renounce all other beliefs.)
Before my confused mother found an answer, my 85-year-old father, a reticent man, jumped to make his statement, “I don’t believe in Jesus!”
Obviously my father would hate to lose blessings from our ancestors. In his perfect calculation, my mother’s going to church would bring home blessings from Jesus, while his absence from the church would give our ancestors no excuse to abandon us. Thus, we would be double blessed.
But are we double blessed now? Are we?