Ryan Zhang moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China at the age of twelve, and has lived in three U.S. cities and two different continents since then. Ryan received his Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently serving as a church planting resident at New City Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, his US hometown. Before moving to Boston for seminary, Ryan lived in Washington D.C. for seven years, first as a student at Georgetown University and later working for a law firm. It was during his time in D.C. that Ryan met his wife, Abigail, who shares his love for history and classical music. In his free time, Ryan likes to watch Chinese dramas, cook, swim, and listen to Beethoven.
Christmas in America always reminds me of Chinese Spring Festival – more commonly known as Chinese New Year – because it is the closest equivalent to the Chinese holiday. One of the biggest events in Chinese television every year is the Spring Festival Gala on Chinese Central Television. The 4-hour long variety show leading up to the new year's countdown features the best artists from all across the country, performing in comedy skits, songs, magic tricks, dances, and much more. The show takes months of planning, and many artists practice for decades for only a few minutes on that stage. Even though its popularity has declined a little bit in the past few years, I believe it is still the most eclectic demonstration of Chinese culture and talents in a single evening.
Fortunately for us, if you are curious to know what the Spring Festival Gala looks like, you can easily find recordings of recent years' shows on YouTube. On New Year's Day in 2015, as I was catching up on highlights of the gala from the previous evening, I was delighted to see my favorite artist, Andy Lau, singing "The Way Home," the theme song for that year's Spring Festival. Its chorus is goes somewhat like this:
Go home Happiness,
Happiness is embracing you, mother and father;
Speak your long-awaited words,
Until the light grows dim in the corner.
Go home Loneliness,
Loneliness is still waiting for comfort;
Remove the multiple layers of costumes from your body,
Dispel the fog in your heart.
Dispel the fog in your heart.Each year over 200 million people in China leave their homes to seek work or schooling in a different city. That is roughly one in every six people in China (or for perspective, two-third's of the total U.S. population). Most of them are only able to visit their families once a year during the Chinese New Year holiday. For a civilization that prizes family as a core value, these year-long separations are painful. Perhaps this is why many people in the audience began to tear up as the song resonated in their hearts.
I later found out that "The Way Home" was also the theme song of a heart-wrenching film titled Lost and Love (失孤). The irony is, Lost and Love is not a film about someone on his way home; rather, it is about a dad who has been on the road away from home for fifteen years.
Lost and Love is a story about a poor farmer from Anhui province on a journey to search for his stolen son. One large group of people who are unable to return home are children who have been abducted from their families. According to some reports, more than 200,000 children are kidnapped and sold in China each year. Unlike most trafficking, many of these children are not sold into sexual exploitation or for labor, but are victims of "forced adoptions." Forced adoptees are stolen far away from their homes – usually from poor families in rural villages – and taken to the other places to be sold. Upper-middle class families, who are dissatisfied with having only one child under China's one-child policy, purchase these stolen children and "adopt" them (usually boys) into their families. Even though these forced adoptees may end up in families who are wealthier than the ones they were born into, and grow up with good education and a loving home life, they are invisible to society because without their original birth certificates they are unable to obtain a government issued ID. Without this mandatory ID, they are not able to purchase plane tickets, ride in trains, attend public schools, or work legally. Of course, all of these inconveniences still pale in comparison to the pain of being stolen from their biological parents at a very young age.
At the opening of Lost and Love, the farmer Lei Ze Kuan has been on the road for fifteen years, searching for a son who was stolen when he was only two years old. He travels across China on the back of a motorcycle. On the two sides of the motorcycle, Lei flies two large banners displaying a picture of his son and a brief description of his family's story. Of course, after fifteen years, Lei's son no longer looks like the toddler on his motorcycle banner, and no one he meets knows whether he is still alive. It is unclear from the film how many miles Lei has traveled on his motorcycle, but from the dirt on his clothes and the grayness on his brows, we can see Lei is tired to the bone.
His quest is met with both sympathy and coolness. In one scene, Lei passes out fliers at a public concert, which almost immediately find their way to the ground. In order to save on printing costs, Lei goes around after the concert to pick them back up. In another scene, Lei is informed by an online network that his son may be in a fishing village. Lei drives for days to the village and finds a teenage boy who was adopted at a very young age. As Lei tries to look at the boy's foot to verify a scar on his son's foot, people in the village gather around Lei and beat him to the ground. When he is finally left alone, he realizes his motorcycle has been tossed into the ocean and the photo banners have been carried away by the sea.
But Lei also finds help in some unexpected places. One time Lei is pulled over by two gruff police officers for driving his motorcycle on the highway. Lei immediately apologizes profusely. After pointing out to him that he is on the wrong road, one of the officers takes Lei's map to point him in the right direction. He folds the map and hands it back to Lei, and they go their separate ways. A little while later, as Lei pulls out the map he discovers two hundred-dollar bills hidden inside.
I encourage you to watch the film to find out how it ends. Besides featuring my favorite Chinese actor, the film also displays some of China's most beautiful scenery. But the best part of this story, and the most moving aspect, is that it is true. The real-life protagonist is a poor farmer named Guo Gangtang from Shandong Province. He has been in search of his son for over eighteen years. Although he is still looking for his own child, Guo has created multiple platforms and networks that help many families reunite with their own loved ones.
We may not identify with their experiences, but stories like these still resonate with us because you and I both know we long for unconditional love like this. Regardless of what we have done, how long we have been missing, or whether we are still recognizable, we want someone who will love us enough to search for us when we are lost.
The Advent season reminds us every year that this story is true for us, too. Advent tells the story of a people who are lost and yet still loved, and a God who came to search for us at all costs. His wandering is our hope; his coming is our way home.