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JISHOU, HUNAN — This encounter happened this morning, but the stage was set yesterday. I met a Chinese guy who apparently is an itinerant Christian preacher of some kind, and he hit me up for money.

I meet a student every afternoon outside near the basketball courts for our lessons. The weather has been cooperative (no rain) and the trees give us enough shade to make sitting there comfortable.

Meeting in the open means random people wandering by will sometimes just pause by Clark and me. Some just listen and leave. Some interrupt to ask me questions. One asked me to be her teacher, for pay. Yesterday, while I was going over one of Clark’s essays, this older dude kept circling around us, waiting for the opportunity to ask me a question.

His clothes (blue cotton shirt, dark gray pants) were a little worn looking, but not in really bad shape. His mustache and beard were scraggly. I’d say he was about 40ish, or maybe older, since his hair was going salt-and-pepper. His question was a grammatical one, not too hard to answer. So, after five minutes, he said thanks, asked for my business card and went on his way. I took him initially for a somewhat eccentric professor.

This morning, promptly at 8:30, he called, asking to meet him for unspecified reasons. I suggested we meet in the afternoon, but he said he would be leaving around noon, could we meet now?

I found this idea just a little presumptuous, since I did have other things to do. So, we agreed to meet in an hour.

I found him sitting next to a young man — I reckon one of our students — talking to him while pointing to a large bilingual Bible in his lap. My new acquaintance asked me to wait a minute. So I sat down and listened, trying to understand the gist of the conversation.

(It’s funny, but even when a person is speaking Chinese, a Bible quote sounds just like a Bible quote. There’s something about the rhythm, or maybe the conviction of the speaker that makes it sound Biblical.)

Anyway, the student left after five minutes and the preacher fellow asked me if I was a Christian — Catholic or Protestant. I said I was loosely raised Protestant, was a believer for a while, but was no longer a practicing Christian. I didn’t get into the whole “I’m a Quaker” thing, and I was really not keen on debating belief, but he asked me why I wasn’t a believer any more.

Well, we spent a few more minutes talking about science and religion, but I could tell his immediate concern was not to convert me. Francis (his English name) got down to brass tacks. He was planning on leaving Jishou today and could I loan him some money.

OK, I thought to myself, I’ll play the game, so I asked how much he needed.

“2,000 RMB.”

“Ah, I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I’m a professor, you know. Besides, I don’t know you. We met only yesterday.”

Francis thought for a while. “Then, could you loan me around 100 to 300?”

“How about 200? You know, I will traveling next week myself, so I need to save my money.” (I’ve loaned this amount to a student needing travel money already, so there was precedent. Not that Francis would know that. Besides, 2,000 RMB is half my monthly income and could buy someone two round trip softbed sleeper berths on a train to Beijing. )

Francis thought some more, and said finally that he would try to find another source of funds, and not to worry about loaning him any money. We shook hands, and I went on my way.

On my way back to my apartment, I caught sight of Francis in the same place, Bible in hand, once again talking to another college student.

I’m talking about this encounter because I have had few discussions about religion here, and until today never had seen anyone preaching (even quietly) to someone else. The asking for money part was a little annoying, but I sensed that Francis was sincere and not trying to scam me like the street people along Broadway in Louisville. He didn’t press the issue, either, and didn’t start cussing me out when I refused, unlike the Louisville street people.

Officially, China is an atheistic country. The government tolerates only certain recognized churches, but there are many “home churches” where people meet on the sly, since such meetings are illegal. Missionary work here is very low key out of necessity. Public religious gatherings would be closed down by the cops in a New York minute, and someone identified as a proselytizer would be arrested. I wondered if Francis’ itinerancy had something to do with avoiding arrest, in fact.

One of the stipulations of my contract is to “respect China’s religious policies, and … not conduct any religious activities incompatible” with my status as a foreign expert. So, I am very careful to avoid sounding like I am trying to convert my students to Christianity.* Not that I would anyway, given my Quaker background and present non-belief, but it pays to be cautious.

The university library does have copies of the Bible and books of Bible stories in the English language stacks. I am not sure about the Chinese stacks. Local bookstores also carry bilingual Bibles, and you can order them off the Internet. So, it’s not like China is completely suppressing Christianity or knowledge about it. But the government keeps a very tight lid on it, and other religions, too.

(Two of the troublespots in China lately have coincidentally been religious “hotspots,” Tibet (Lama Buddhism) and Xinjiang (Islam). Whether the central government is trying to quash the religions there I cannot say.)

So, Francis is a brave soul, but a careful one. Meeting students one at a time in the open is like hiding in plain sight. And his asking for money is a time-honored tradition among both Buddhist and Catholic monks, if a little too forward for my tastes. It was a meaningful encounter in many ways.

* Students do ask me questions about the Bible, Jesus and so on. And I answer them. I don’t avoid discussing religion if another person raises a question. I do avoid bringing the subject up myself.

On a related note, I will also mention an interesting conversation I had with my foreign affairs officer recently. There was a bad train wreck in Hunan about two weeks ago, and Chinese authorities always worry about how foreigners interpret events. It seems the local Public Security Bureau (PSB) was inquiring of my FAO where the foreigners at the university were and what were they doing. The PSB wanted to know about my typical activities. He told them that I was a quiet fellow who stayed at home, but who also liked traveling around China. If my FAO knows I blog, he didn’t mention it. It was a reminder that China still has a Big Brother complex, and that foreigners have to be careful not to rock the boat too much. I don’t worry about being arrested or deported, but caution is the better part of valor.