“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God”
A Westerner painted a charcoal painting of an old gentleman. The old man gazed at the painting for a long time, and then asked, “It’s a good enough likeness ! But that half of my face isn’t black!” It seems that just as it was not easy for this elderly man to accept Western painting styles, so it is not easy to introduce western-style time-management concepts to the people in the valley. In Yunnan, it was this lack of a time sense among the country folks that gave me the biggest headaches. For example, I organized a teachers’ training class. Two months before the class started, I announced the date when the class would begin and requested that they tell me before the deadline for registrations if they would be able to attend. However, when the date arrived, only three out of the thirty-some candidates had told me their decision. There was total silence from the others. As a result, I had to chase each one up, only to receive the following response: ‘I’ll decide when the time comes. Here, we only give three days advance notice for any event, even for a wedding.’
During the training course, the students did not turn up on time for anything, including classes, mealtimes, sleep, or any other activities. The timetables that were posted up everywhere were totally ignored. As I watched the minute hand of my watch move on, I began to experience stomach cramps. In the States, everyone lives to a timetable. By the beginning of each year, we have already scheduled all our activities for the rest of the year. Every day of every week has been scheduled; even every hour is planned in detail. So I decided to teach them a lesson on western-style time-management. To emphasize the importance of punctuality, I impressed on them that failure to be punctual is actually wasting the lives of other people. However, when the next day came, they still followed their own traditional ways and could not have cared less about my life!
I visited a school which had a student dormitory. In the afternoons after class, the students went out to the fields round about to study or play, while I sat on the sideline chatting with some others. I did not keep note of how much time had passed, yet I noticed that all the students returned to school at exactly the same time. None of them had wrist-watches, so how could they tell the time? As I was pondering this, I looked up at the sky, and then it struck me: the sky is the clock face, and the smoke from the kitchen is the hour hand. It is six o’clock, time for dinner. What a great psychological clock!
Is it true that the Chinese have no sense of time? Not at all. They live to a time-scale which is based on one’s state of mind, and is different from western-style real time. It is just like the painting: western-style paints the real thing, but Chinese paintings express a state of mind. Western paintings emphasize the contrasts of light and shadow, coloring, anatomy, focused perspective; while Chinese paintings turn reality into a world of the imagination, black turns to white, feeling, flavor and diffused perspective are added to express the sense of beauty. If I was really motivated by love, why had I not been able to grasp their concept of time, which is rooted in a state of mind? The local co-workers told me: ‘do you hear the cock crowing? Then it must be time to get up’. ‘Are the ears of rice plump and ripe ? Then let’s start the school term’. ‘Has the broad bean plant flowered? Then it is time to rest from working in the fields, and plan a wedding.’
Why were we so concerned about which month, which day, what hour and what minute? God allows people to live beautiful lives within a time-frame that harmonises with one’s state of mind. So, being late is taking it easy; coming unannounced is to be pleasantly surprised; and missing an appointment is to give you space for dreaming. Rather than trying to change others’ habits, it is better to learn to respect, accept, appreciate, and even enjoy the ways they think.
I wanted to learn to live in this relaxed way. I saw a place on the map called West Lake, and took a cab there. On the way to my destination, the car suddenly stopped and the cab driver got out of his seat and started fiddling under the hood. Don’t ask, ‘How long will it take to fix the problem?’ The answer will always be ‘Soon’, which means anything from half an hour to three hours. Don’t ask, ‘How much farther do we have to go?’ The standard answer is ‘Not very far’, meaning anything between 1 and 10 kilometers. By the time we arrived at our destination I was feeling hungry and strolled into a nearby house, where the hospitable host invited me to dinner. Afterwards, I went down to the pier at the edge of West Lake and boarded a boat owned by an old lady. She asked where I would like to go, and I replied: ‘Oh, just anywhere !’ She understood immediately and pushed the boat out onto the lake. The boat was 7 meters long and 1 meter wide, with a flatter part in the mid-section. Why not take a nap? So the old lady took the bow and I took the rear of the boat, and we both fell asleep. When I woke up the old lady’s eyes were still closed, but the sky was growing dark and flocks of waterfowl were flying back to their nests. I said to the old lady, ‘Let’s go back now.’ She gave a broad smile. ‘So this foreigner is not so ignorant, after all!’
Since we are the invaders in this world which already had its own ways of looking at things, why not adopt the easy relaxed ways that we lost sight of so long ago?
The author came from Shanghai, moved to USA and has been involved in helping the poor in rural areas in mainland China. He (she) is now studying in seminary.