A Surprisingly Pleasant Encounter with Jesus
By definition, surprise is unanticipatable. When you expect something, it no longer becomes unexpected. Human beings have a complex relationship with the unexpected. It wakes us up. It launches our senses. It makes us feel alive. But, we’ve also based our entire civilization on eliminating it. Being on time. Being prepared. Knowing what’s around the corner. Having a plan. Eliminating inefficiency—surprise, astonishment, shock have no practical value. Collectively, apparently, we don’t want to be surprised.
But, secretly, we do.
Surprises are hidden down alleys and on little streets between big streets. Down an alley off Meiyuan Road I find a wonton shop wedged between a barber and a convenience store. I sit down and order a bowl of pork and celery wontons and I start talking. The boss-waiter-cashier-cook reaches into a freezer and scoops out a handful of little yellow handmade moons and drops them in a boiling pot. He’s short, late 40s, and wears a leather jacket that doesn’t work in 2017.
We do the usual. I say I’m from the US, he says that’s a great big country. I say it has its pros and cons. He says he’s from the province of Anhui. I name the one city I know in Anhui. He calls me a certified China expert. I pay and leave and he says come back any time. And I do come back, maybe once a week. There’s something about this guy that I can’t pin down. Something about the other people that seem to come though the shop that I can’t pin down. It’s like, I don’t know, it’s like they have this look. This look that I know from somewhere but can’t articulate.
So, I come back and eat cheap wontons every week or so. And I get in some Chinese conversation reps. The guy in the leather jacket says we should grab a meal sometime. Sure, whatever, whenever, I say. When. Next week, maybe. Sure, he says, I’ll call you.
I want to make friends with everyone. Unless someone invites me to go hold magnifying glasses over anthills or kick stray dogs at traffic I usually say yes. I suppose I’m trying to manufacture surprise, to the degree that that’s something that can be done.
So, Mr. Wang, the wonton shop proprietor with the leather jacket and the look, calls me next Friday at 2 PM and says to come to the new restaurant across from the college at 7. I say sure and at 6 Mr. Wang calls me to tell me he’s already there and I should come by whenever.
So I walk over to the restaurant and find Mr. Wang on the second floor sitting at the head of a very long table—a table that, were I to sit at the other end, would evoke medieval cartoons. I sit down next to Mr. Wang and a man he introduces as his brother. Because I regard myself as very perceptive and intuitive in these matters, I swear that this brother, who is fat and bald and does not look like Mr. Wang in the slightest, has that goddamn look as well.
So, I sit down across from this fat and bald brother and Mr. Wang and we start chatting. I tell the brother I’m from the USA. He says, wow, what a great big country. I say, yeah, it’s like anywhere—there’s good, there’s bad. He says he’s from Zhejiang province. I mention the one city I know in Zhejiang and he calls me a certifiable brilliant genius. I also notice that Anhui and Zhejiang are not the same province and that it is, probabilistically speaking, incredibly unusual for brothers to be from different provinces and look nothing like each other.
I ask Mr. Wang why he chose such a big table and he tells me that there will be over 20 people joining us tonight and they do this every Friday.
And he smiles and tells me that I am the special guest, which is somewhat annoying because I just wanted to grab a bite with Mr. Wang and then go home and watch some basketball highlights and like 5 episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and go to bed. Mr. Wang tells me that he has been to seven countries, which is very unusual for a guy who runs a wonton shop in an alley off Meiyuan Road that never has anyone in it.
So, the table starts to fill up and, I’ll be damned if all these, or at least most of these new dinner-mates don’t have that look. I start meeting them informally and they are all so nice. Like, so nice it makes me sick how nice they are. And then Mr. Wang stands up and says we’re going to go around the table and do introductions. And I, being the guest of honor, should go first. So I tell them who I am and what I do and apparently this information is worthy of a collective exclamation of a very familiar word that happens to be the same in Chinese and English.
And then the old woman to my right, Sister Chen, tells us who she is and what she does and she gets an Amen, too.
And, well now it’s all becoming pretty obvious. They’ve got that Mike Pence-y, Ned Flanders-y, Tim Tebow-y look about them. Like, that incredibly nice and polished, mildly possessed look.
And when a college freshman named Lu stands up and introduces himself, Mr. Wang leans over and tells me, “He’s new. He hasn’t yet met Jesus.”
And at that moment I wonder if my American-ness and my whiteness had unintentionally indicated that I was neither new nor unacquainted with Jesus. And then I start thinking how awkward its going to be to reveal not only my lack of familiarity with Jesus, but also my deep-rooted certainty that those who had met Jesus—if we’re being honest, Mr. Wang—had probably actually just met someone else who claimed to have met Jesus and that the whole meeting of Jesus was a big pyramid scheme and at the top of the pyramid was a brilliant novelist who’s been dead for a few thousand years.
But, I didn’t have time because Sister Chen had me by the left hand and Mr. Wang had me by the right and everyone’s head was down and Mr. Wang was thanking Jesus for the Kung Pao Chicken.
So, I put my head down and said thanks to no one in particular, but felt pretty good about it. The chicken was delicious. All the food was.
Mr. Wang told me about his trip to Israel and I chose this moment to lie but not lie about my religious persuasions. I revealed my Star of David necklace and told him that I to had been to Israel because every Jew gets a free trip to Israel once in their life.
“You’re Jewish! Wow! Just like Jesus! Jews are the most successful people in the world. Great with money, Jews!”
I told him, truthfully, that I had read the Bible and that I thought there were a look of good principles in there and he made a point to say, yes, principles and, also, don’t forget, truth. And I said, sure. We compared notes on Judaism (on which my notes are pretty scarce) and Christianity.
I learned that Mr. Wang is a minister at a big local church and has been on mission trips all around Asia. I also learned that it wasn’t so easy to be into Jesus in China these days, and that his father, a little old man I had seen in the wonton shop diligently reading a big fat book was a Christian and so was his father. And in their day it was really not so easy to be into Jesus in China.
After an hour or two I decided to call it quits. Mr. Wang told me that they do this every Friday and I, his “Old Testament Brother,” was welcome whenever I liked. Before I left, Mr. Wang passed out a little booklet and the medical device salesman across the table produced a guitar and everybody held hands and sang an uplifting song about meeting new people and how much I, their new pal, was loved. Loved by them, and by another guy who was not sitting at the table but was a very close mutual friend.
And I walked away smiling and feeling quite uplifted and thoroughly surprised by the whole affair. And happy that I walked down the alley and stumbled upon a Biblically inclined wonton pusher who led me to more biblically inclined people who sang a song about how much they loved me.
Now, it wasn’t nearly uplifting enough for me to become the next victim of the pyramid scheme, but I understand why Mr. Wang and his brothers and sisters feel so good about their invisible friend. They really believe the stuff and it makes them feel good and happy and if something makes you smile and laugh even if it’s something ridiculous, why not go ahead and call it whatever the fuck you want? At the end of the day, it’s the songs and the food and the new friends they really believe in, regardless of what they call it.
Anyways, there are a million untapped alleys and side streets left. I’ll go down as many of them as I can, Robert Frost style. Because I have to. That’s where the good stuff is. Mandarin-speaking Friends of Jesus probably won’t be down the next one. But, shit, they might be. It’s impossible to say. You never know.