My first and best Chinese friend

72        Thoreau, Henry David Thoreau, wrote his famous poem titled The Road Not Taken starting with the words, "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . . .” I have to admit I've never read the poem and yet the concept has always been close to my heart. Sometimes we do things which have unexpected consequences are we don't do things and wonder later what we should have done or how are lives might be different if we had. My Chinese friendships fall into this category as did my relationship with Glenda. What would've happened if I had married her instead of Gail? Would we have had children? What I have been left with a five-year-old whose mother had died of brain tumor? I'll never know.

73        February 26 of 2004 was one of those days. I was working in Atlanta and walked across the street for lunch to browse in the bookstore and happen to be attracted to the foreign language section. I told the story before so I won't go into detail. But when I selected Chinese as a new language to learn I had no idea how it would change my life. As a child, I never remember having a Chinese classmate or friend. In college, I saw Chinese people on campus but never bothered to become acquainted although there were a few of them. I had a Japanese friend in high school, Steve Grissom, who I never really treated fairly. I call in Japanese but in reality he was an American, as much an American as I am. Only 40 years after graduation what I discover his father was an American and his mother was Japanese, probably from a marriage made in the military when his father may have been stationed on Okinawa.

74        In all of my adult life I never had or taken the opportunity to seek out people from China for friendship. In fact, the opportunities were few to nonexistent. I can't remember meeting Chinese people in Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, back in Arkansas again, South Carolina, or Louisiana again, after I graduated from college in 1974 and before we moved to Georgia in 2003. That's not really that amazing. For example, in our current home town of Mountain Home, Arkansas while Asians are the largest minority they make up only less than 1% of the population of 11,000. I've only met them at Chinese restaurants and once or twice when I intentionally introduce myself recently in stores. I would have to seek out Chinese friends.

Photo: Gao Li overlooking the Buffalo River at what I still like to call "Buffalo State Park," now part of the first U. S. National River, the Buffalo National River, managed by the U. S. Park Service.

Gao Li

75        In Georgia, I have hired a Chinese tutor to help you get started in mastering the language that our relationship was purely a business affair. When we returned to Arkansas in the winter of 2008, I decided to work on improving my use of Chinese. I contacted the University of Arkansas’ Chinese Student and Scholar Association and ask to be added to their mailing list. I submitted a note to the group offering to help anyone to learn English in exchange for their help in learning Chinese. In particular, I sought out someone who was a biologist. I had assumed someone would respond but only one person did, Gao Li.

76        I use the Chinese word order for Li's name out of respect for the Chinese language. Family names are listed first and when Li introduced himself I confused Sheila by calling him both Gao Li and Li Gao. Soon after I arrived in Arkansas he responded to my e-mail and I invited him to come visit us. I drove my pickup truck to Fayetteville, picked him up and brought him to our home in Flippin. We soon became good friends and over the next two years he would visit us several times. I taught him how to drive my truck, which was a real adventure, and took him canoeing on the nearby Buffalo River.

Learning to each Chinese

77        I grew up as a very picky eater. There were many things I didn't like to eat and when Gail had asked me what I like to eat and I responded with, "Corn, tomatoes, potatoes," she would later say she didn't think that was the only thing I liked to eat. As you may know, my parents had raised me is what is called a lactovegetarian, not a true pure vegetarian or a vegan, but as someone who ate milk, eggs, and cheese but no beef, chicken, ham, seafood, or fish, etc. I can't remember eating at Chinese restaurant until I was in my 40s. Life changes, and my decision to learn Chinese is still changing me.

78        Li surprised us and offered to cook a Chinese meal when he visited our house. His cooking skills astounded me. We invited my old college roommate, Charlie Hammett, and his wife, Karen, over for the meal and Li laid out a real seven course feast. I'm still not much of a meat eater but we all enjoyed the meal immensely.

Teaching Li drive

79        Many people in China did not know how to drive a car. I learned much from them about China I was very surprised on one of my visits to Fayetteville, perhaps the first, Li showed me his new car, a sedan. "I have a learner's permit but I don't know how to drive," he surprised me. I probably surprised him to when I responded, "I can teach you." He was very excited about the prospect and on perhaps our second trip from Fayetteville to Mountain Home he learned to drive.

80        Excited and nervous as any teenager and his first time behind the wheel Li was eager to learn and scared to death. "Where will we go for you to teach me?" he asked. “You can drive on the way home," I told him. I had no idea what we were getting into but my father had a reputation for being a patient driving teacher and I felt confident as a teacher. I drove the truck to a vacant parking lot behind a nearby convenience store and then the fun started.

81        Li was not very sure of himself and to make matters worse the truck had a standard transmission. Li would have to learn the hard way how to work three petals, the gas, the break, and the clutch at the same time. The experience took me back to when my brother, Robert, taught me how to drive the same day I had my first accident. Li would prove a better student that I was. Nevertheless, the word confident could not be applied to his first experience driving. It took about 20 minutes for him to learn to master the art of letting out a clutch without stalling the engine and once he did start we bounced and jerked around the parking lot for about 20 minutes more if he mastered the art of starting and stopping.

Country roads take me home

82        Obviously, Li was not ready for the open highway. We switched places and headed east past Huntsville to a roadside park area near Alpena. I had driven the road collecting plants a few months earlier which tells me this probably occurred in the summer of 2008. I turned off on a dirt road that would take us the back way into Harrison and asked Li to trade places with me. Still nervous, but a little more confident, Liu was soon learning how to keep it between the ditches. Like any new driver he chose the middle of the road and when oncoming pickup truck appeared he nearly panicked. “Move to the right," I would learn to say often to my Chinese friends who I teach how to drive. He stared at me as if he was afraid the truck would take off through the fences across the pastures but managed to stop in the middle of the road. Unknowingly, he created his first traffic problem for himself. The truck was almost upon us and he was stopped dead in the middle of the road. 

83        "Start the engine, and don't worry about it, everyone has to learn how to drive sometime," Li looked at me nervously as he hurried to get the truck moving and out of the way. Over the next ten miles he gradually gained his confidence but still commanded the road from the center. Country roads in Arkansas still have many low-water crossings where you drive across the water on a concrete slab and when one appeared to our right Li was ready to panic. "Stay in the middle and drive across," I told him calmly.

84        "We can cross that?" He asked incredulously.

85        "That's the only way ahead. We have to go across it," I told him. He looked at me with a look of awe, wonder, surprise, and disbelief. We were going to cross and he was going to drive across that I was going to make him deal with it. He finally accepted the concept and did a snail’s pace we got the tires wet and reached the paved road on the other side. I let him drive most of the way into Harrison is the traffic was light and he needed the experience. "Keep to the right," I had to repeat many times. Obviously, he was much more comfortable staying away from the road edge.

86        He and I practiced a little more before we put Sheila in the car with us in the backseat on a two-lane dead-end paved road south of Mountain Home leading down to the White River. Fortunately, the yellow line made it a little easier for me to force Li to stay on his side of the road. It would take time but on another trip Li did well as I led him on a crooked and winding road out of Fayetteville on another trip to Mountain Home.

Driving a canoe

87        Tomorrow's story