I consider it a good thing when you meet someone new from a very different background that provides a chance to pause, and to see your own world in a different light. That view from another vantage point helps to put a wider perspective on our own understandings, experiences, preferences and prejudices, and I think provides a greater and more useful context in which to examine our lives. Unless that person is a loud-mouth, a know-it-all or other brand of royal-pain-in-the-ass, the meeting will probably leave you with a clearer picture of the world and your place in it, if you let it.
I recently spent the afternoon by a chance of fate with just such a person, and we both enjoyed the experience — though we couldn’t have come from more different worlds. I grew up in a middle-class American home with six kids, a mom, a dad, a dog and two cars in the driveway. There was always enough to eat and some presents under the Christmas tree. I had a red bicycle, a baseball glove and a basketball hoop mounted on the garage above the doors. I swam and played ball in the summer, went sledding and skiing in the winter, mowed lawns, and had a paper route in-between. Pretty nice, normal stuff from how I saw it.
My new acquaintance had a very different story from thousands of miles away and a culture thousands of years older than mine. He was born in the People’s Republic of China, and shortly thereafter both of his parents committed suicide. He spent his first four years in several different foster homes and the next three in orphanages, seemingly being tossed around like a pair of Las Vegas dice. One day a single woman from America flew to Hong Kong, signed some papers and whisked him off to live in the suburbs outside New York City with his new life, new culture and new identity.
I tried to put myself in his place, attempting to forget my own comparatively idyllic childhood, but I could not fathom the experience as hard as I tried. His life was a total disconnect to anything I had ever known or had even imagined in my nightmares. I had no reference. If I were flown to Hong Kong at age 7 to start again, what would I be now?
His mom is a long-time friend of my wife’s, and they showed up at our home for a brief visit just before my new friend’s 12th birthday. We walked the dogs down by the creek while we told them about the sounds of the water and birds by day and the coyotes and owls by night, and bragged about the wonders of Southern Appalachia.
The next day when the girls headed off to Asheville, he announced that he’d stay here with the tall man he had just met – much to his Mom’s surprise, as well as mine. With a wink and a nod, the sexes headed their separate ways. I had a few errands to do in town so we loaded into the truck and headed down the mountain. We got some gas and then stopped by the farm supply store for collard seed and to look at all the stuff there with a ginger ale. Then to the grocery store, where I instructed him to get whatever he wanted for lunch as we walked the aisles. He picked out an apple and a bag of beef jerky, the plain kind, no spices. He doesn’t like spicy jerky, I learned. I knew that his mom is a vegetarian and asked him if he was one too.
“Not when I’m on vacation,” was his reply between bites. Works for me, I thought.
We got back to the farm and I showed him the woodshop and he asked what I could build. I told him I usually built houses, garages, barns and that kinda stuff.
He asked “Can you build a wagon or a spear?” I told him I thought I could, but why would he need a spear?
“In case of the coyotes” he squarely replied. “I think we need a spear, with a sharp point.”
I wasn’t sure where he had formed his coyote notions, but I obliged and we started looking for a perfect piece of wood that wasn’t too heavy, but really, really strong. We settled on a piece of oak which I planed and cut with my really, really loud machines, roughing it into a semi-spear for hand finishing. I showed him how to use clamps, a file and sandpaper and turned him loose. The next hour was spent pushing steel against wood, smoothing edges, and sharpening the all-important point, which he tested often with his tiny palm. Those small, Asian eyes were intensely focused on each stroke of the blade, knowing somehow that our safety depended on his skill as a spear maker.
A little later he announced that it was done if I would help him finish, and that we needed a box to test it on, and did I have one? We finished the piece to his satisfaction and found an old box in the corner, broken but perfect. Under his instruction we put a foam pad inside to make it more like a real coyote. We set it on end, standing almost as tall as he was, and the practice began. For the next hour our cardboard coyote took dozens of mortal blows, with frequent commentary, sometimes falling over with the spear sticking straight up in a perfect kill. When one side of the box, I mean coyote, was all but a shred he turned it around and started again. He asked if I had any ketchup or Hawaiian Punch we could put in bags inside to make it really real. I laughed and told him I had none, which was “OK,” and the practice resumed. When Mom returned, he rushed her to the shop to see what he had done and how safe we would all now be.
They left the next morning with spear in hand, promising to come back for another hike by the creek, in absolute safety. We waved good-bye and I walked up to the shop and saw the tattered box where he had left it, deciding that was a good place for it for now.
For the next few days I saw the box there and thought of my friend with the difficult past and the wonderful, hopeful spirit. Sometimes I chuckled and sometimes a tear fell off my face at the thought of his challenging life and what had been shared between these two strangers.
It occurred to me at one point that we all have “cardboard coyotes” we’re constantly battling, be they real or imagined. Personal shortcomings, unachieved goals, misunderstood fears and false notions can leave each of us feeling vulnerable at some point, no matter where we’re from or how lucky we’ve been. Maybe if we all spent the time and energy my little friend did to skewer these unseen threats, we too could walk bravely and confidently through life, regardless of our past or what might or might not be lurking around the next corner.