I started meeting with Lucy as language partners in the fall of 2013. At the time, I was in the second year of a two-year master’s degree program at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lucy was also in her second year at MIT in a postdoctoral research position, and it was pretty convenient for us to meet once a week on campus. Our conversations took a bit of work, but came relatively easily once we got going on a topic. I often let Lucy suggest a topic of conversation in which she wanted to learn more vocabulary. One of my best memories that fall was sitting on the MIT steps, looking at the Charles River, and going over the different names for fingers (pointer finger versus pinky finger) and expressions (like clapping and stomping.) Overall, our topics of conversation were pretty secular.
I genuinely appreciated our friendship as it grew. I remember how appreciative Lucy was when I invited her over for a very casual Friday night where we ate homemade apple pie and watched the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. By the end of the term, we would get together for a quick lunch as a break from work just like regular friends. The benefits of the friendship felt very mutual, as it was refreshing to hang out with someone outside of my other social circles during the week.
Our first more spiritual conversations probably came up around Christmas of that year, since we generally talked about whatever holiday or season we were in. For example, I enjoyed sharing holiday festivities with her like my church’s Christmas concert. At that point, I remember most of our conversations about religion tending to mainly focus on talking about different cultures and traditions.
Then in the spring of 2014, we had one or two more in-depth conversations about spirituality. These started after reading a short classic Chinese children’s story that had a theme of death and the afterlife. Throughout our first year of being language partners, I enjoyed learning more about Chinese traditions and spiritual beliefs.
As a celebration after the school year ended, Lucy and I had a summer picnic at sunset on the Charles River. After hanging out for nearly an hour every week, Lucy had become one of my closer friends in Boston. So I remember being really surprised when she told me about a Bible study she was part of that summer with a Chinese professor at MIT. By that point, she and I had had good conversations about religious beliefs in general, but I had never received a strong impression that she was really interested in learning more about Christianity. I had invited her to a Bible study for Chinese students my friends hosted at my home that spring, and she was never too interested in coming.
During that same picnic, Lucy talked about how much she enjoyed being in a book club, so I suggested we could read a book together such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I told her how the book was a classic English children’s book and also an allegory about Christ’s crucifixion, so it could be an interesting book to read. Lucy was really excited about the idea, so throughout the fall of 2014 we read through the majority of the book together.
The book was an easy way for me to bring up Christianity because there are so many parallels to be drawn. There were a handful of weeks when I came away from our language partner meeting amazed at the questions Lucy asked regarding Christianity and how she initiated the conversation. Around the middle of the fall, Lucy explained to me that she had received a Bible in college from a roommate in China, and she has been trying to read it off-and-on since then. Learning this honestly surprised me because Lucy had not talked about such exposure to the Bible before. At that point, we discussed the possibility of reading a chapter of the Bible together every week after we finish The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Reflecting back on the journey of our friendship makes me deeply appreciate a ministry that builds relationships that serve people holistically. The ministry through which I was matched with Lucy talks on their website about offering assistance in the mind, the body, and the soul. Like most friendships, my friendship with Lucy started more with the mind and body - speaking English, sharing our cultures’ stories, and enjoying eating Chinese and American food together.
As our friendship developed, talking about God felt natural, and not forced or awkward since we had the basis of a great friendship. This fall, we could talk about a deep spiritual question for a while and then easily switch into casual conversation, just like I might with a close friend from church. Furthermore, I have personally benefited greatly from our relationship as many of her spiritual questions have challenged me to grow in my understanding of my faith.
I had a second Chinese language partner last spring with whom I often met at the same time as Lucy. This language partner and I did not have the same natural affinities Lucy and I have, and she is now meeting with someone else as a language partner. This is just to say that if you start befriending people in the Chinese community, I would encourage you to treat it as any friendship that has the potential to become a long-term friendship. Do not to give up hope if a particular friendship does not develop. God has created the body of Christ for us all to be part of in different ways and we will have natural connections with people in different ways.
I am thankful that God has given Lucy and I the opportunity to be just one part of each other’s stories, and I hope that others can likewise develop genuine, mutual friendships that can last.
Laura Martin lives and works in the Boston metro area with her husband. She volunteers regularly with a ministry seeking to serve Chinese scholars at Harvard and MIT in Christ’s name.