Every year, as we decorated our Christmas tree, one of my daughters would pull out one particular brightly colored ornament that would prompt me to recall, one more time, the Chinese friend from graduate school who gave it to me. And every year I wondered: Where is Ji? I so hope he is well.
Ji joined my office in graduate school in the early 1980s. He had come to the U.S. on a one year program from his work unit–it was early in the process of China opening to the world. We called ourselves the “office of failures” because we had all done something prior to coming to graduate school. The office included a failed bureaucrat, failed historian, failed book seller, failed missionary, and Ji became our failed communist. He endeared himself to us by putting up with our humor. If someone came into the office and needed a chair to sit on, we would point to Ji’s chair and say “sit there–that is the People’s chair.” He had this wonderful smile in response.
Ji was always asking questions and observing culture and language which also led to much amusement. A roasted pig was served at the wedding of a graduate student and Ji concluded that Americans roast pigs at weddings receptions. We corrected his assumption.
Ji was welcomed into my extended family. He joined us for a ten hour car trip with members of my extended family to visit my parents one Thanksgiving. I remember listening to him practice American expressions in the back seat such as “Amazing” “That is so interesting.” We kept ourselves amused by speculating on cat-dishes in China: sweet and sour tabby; Garfield with beans on the side. Over that Thanksgiving my father took him all over town to introduce him to small town America–to a farm, probably to a mortuary (my father taught death and dying), to just about everywhere. Ji put up with us–though might have been confused–when my father’s friend sent a pizza box that was gift wrapped for my father’s birthday. Inside was a cow pie.
Over the years, about once a year, my aunt asks me–remember that trip? Where is Ji? I hope he is well.
Ji also got to know my grandmother. My grandmother was known for being able to strike up a conversation with anyone she met and find a connection to someone she knew. When she first met Ji we just held our breath and waited to see if she managed to find someone that he knew in China…
Later in her life, she would say to me–remember that person from China? That was so interesting.
Ji got an extension to stay a second year and then attempted to get into graduate school in order to apply his classes toward a degree. He was denied by the university because he had gotten his undergraduate degree during the cultural revolution so it was not considered valid. He had to return to China and his work unit. I remember leaving him off at the airport, wondering and worrying about his future and whether I would see him again.
Literally every day I continued to think about Ji. He was on my mind and in my prayers. We sent him greetings in recordings from a family gathering. I thought of him daily, if not multiple times a day. Eventually he was able to get into another graduate school in the U.S. We helped by putting his name on our bank account–well, it never actually got on there because he didn’t sign the card, but we added the name for awhile. In the midst of all those transitions, one day I realized that I had not thought about Ji for several days. I found out that I had stopped having him on my mind the day he had left China for the U.S. graduate school.
We met several times in the years after that but then I lost track of him. I searched occasionally on the web. My father, as he declined, would occasionally ask me: Where is Ji? I wish I knew he was doing well.
When living in Hong Kong, I would occasionally look at the map, seeing Ji’s hometown just north of Vietnam and think about going there. He had called it the garden city. I wondered if I could somehow find out what happened to him if I went there. My mother recently asked me–Where is Ji?
This past month, I managed to work through a friend who knew someone from the graduate school he attended, who then figured out a way to search for him, and directed me to a university in China. A Chinese colleague of mine read the website to figure out the email address that I could use to reach him. We have exchanged emails and news about families! I am so happy that he is doing well, and especially that he has a family. My aunt and my mother are so pleased.
This Christmas, when I take out the Chinese Christmas ornament for my tree, I am going to think of Ji–and his family. But I don’t have to wonder about whether he is well.