Ah Ni (aka Annie) has left China for the first time to study in the quaint little town of Redbud Corner. An only child of a widowed mother, this opportunity to study in America is her one chance at being a success. She quickly settles in and makes friends with a cantankerous elderly neighbor and a lonely little girl. But things really get interesting when a Christian man takes an interest in her.
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Ah Ni (aka Annie) has left China for the first time to study at an American university in the quaint little town of Redbud Corner. An only child of a widowed mother, this opportunity to study in America is her one chance at being successful in life—and she has placed all her eggs in that basket.
Some local people take her under their wings and begin to introduce her to life in the small town. One man she meets early on dubs her “Annie” and the name sticks. She also meets a cantankerous elderly neighbor that she bonds with and a lonely little girl who captures her heart. Their lives begin to weave together in a way that changes all of them.
Most annoying, however, is a young man who takes an interest in her. This would be okay except he’s a Christian, something that definitely doesn’t fit into her ideas for success in the future. Will Ah Ni let this man and his strange religion into her life, or will she choose the successful man back home in China?
Ah Ni stepped off the airplane and immediately sensed she was in a new place as the odors of fried food and coffee assaulted her senses. Excitement and fear intermingled equally as she hoisted her backpack more securely on her shoulder and followed the crowd to the baggage claim.
Her eyes glanced around at the signs in English. Some were easy to read and others more confusing. She particularly wondered about a sign that said Imagine with a freckle-faced boy looking up. She couldn’t fathom what it could mean. Relieved she saw a sign with an arrow that directed her in the way she should go since the crowd was thinning out.
As she watched the suitcases go round in a circle her mind wandered back to her mother’s words when she left Beijing eighteen long hours ago. “Ah Ni, promise me you will marry a Chinese man.”
“Of course, I will, Mother. I’ll be back after these two years of graduate school and then I will think of such things.”
Her mother looked sad beyond words as she hung her head and said so quietly that Ah Ni had to lean near her to listen. “You won’t come back.”
Ah Ni playfully threw her arm around her mother’s thin shoulders, “Don’t be silly. I could never stay away from you longer than two years.” To her delight, it worked. Her mother smiled and brushed her hair from her face as she used to do when Ah Ni was a child. But when she turned to wave a last “goodbye” to her, she noticed the sober look was back. She knew her quiet, unemotional mother was feeling great sorrow because she truly believed Ah Ni would stay in America.
At this moment, she would gladly return to her mother’s arms. Feeling alone and bewildered, she wondered what she could possibly have been thinking to come such a long way from home.
Her reverie was interrupted as the bright red suitcase caught her eye. All her worldly possessions were in that bag. With unreasoning fear, she grabbed it as if it would be snatched from her hands at any moment. As she hoisted it from the conveyer belt, she wished she’d left a few more books at home. It was far too heavy for her small frame.
After going through customs and having her bag X-rayed and searched, she finally walked into the terminal. She was pleased that it looked a lot like the one in Beijing. She was already hungry to see anything familiar. In customs, she’d been treated suspiciously from the start, as if she were a spy or a terrorist. The personnel had been rude, speaking in heavily accented English. Ah Ni hadn’t meant to disregard anything they’d said, but she was having a trouble understanding them.
She spotted a woman in uniform that looked official. “Would you tell me where I can get a train to Redbud Corner?”
The woman looked her over and said, “Ooh, Honey! There’s no trains here. You’ll have to get to the train station.”
“How can I do that?”
“Cabs are right out there.” She pointed to double doors that led out into a street area.
Ah Ni found a cab right away to her relief. When she asked the driver to take her to the nearest train station, he took off with a nod of his head and she was pleased that he drove carefully. There were so many more cars on the road than at home. The traffic was frightening and she tried not to watch as the cabbie wove in and out of the different lanes.
“Here you are missy. That’ll be $18.95.”
Ah Ni was shocked. She’d ridden all over Beijing for just a couple of dollars. She must have heard him wrong. He too had a strange accent. “How much?” she asked, waiting for the correct amount to be told her.
This time he pointed to the numbers on the panel to show her, “$18.95.” She couldn’t believe it. With trembling hands she gave him a precious twenty dollar bill that she’d just exchanged at the airport. She only had twenty-four more of those and then her money was gone. She needed to get a job quickly when she got to the university.
After leaving the cab, she made her way to the ticket counter of the train station. When she asked for a train to Redbud Corner, the teller said, “No train to Redbud. The train line don’t go that far.” Ah Ni tried to ignore the teller’s poor English but felt a great sinking in her heart. “How can I get there then?”
“Go as far as Cramer, then take a bus or a cab.” Another cab, Ah Ni thought with horror. But not knowing what else to do, she bought the ticket to the unknown city of Cramer and waited a short while to board the train.
As soon as she sat down, she fell asleep. After all, it was the middle of the night in Beijing. She arrived in Cramer in a fog and wondered what to do next. There were cabs everywhere but no bus in sight. In desperation, she took a cab the thirty miles to Redbud Corner and paid the exorbitant fee reluctantly.
By this time it was six o’clock in the evening. The cabbie had dropped her in the middle of campus, but she had no idea where to go next. She asked a passerby where the foreign affairs office was and he shrugged his shoulders. Entering a nearby building, she spotted a janitor scrubbing the floor and asked him the same question. He stopped working and scratched his head but finally said, “Sorry, I ain’t got no idea.”
Seeing an office, she went in and interrupted a secretary busy at work, who looked annoyed before Ah Ni said a word. “Could you tell me where the foreign affairs office is?”
Without looking up the secretary said, “Two buildings down, going north. First floor.”
Wincing, Ah Ni looked nervously around. “Which way is north?”
The secretary pointed and resumed her typing.
Walking out of the building, Ah Ni looked hopefully down the street. She wanted so badly to stop and rest, but she needed to get to the office. She wished she had someplace to leave her suitcase. Climbing the stairs of the indicated building, she pulled open the doors and moved timidly into the hall. To her relief, a door in front of her said “Foreign Affairs” in big letters. Her momentary happiness turned quickly to sorrow when she realized the door was locked.
What was she to do now? The only instruction she had was to go to the Foreign Affairs office when she arrived. She didn’t know where anything was in the city and she was reluctant to part with one more coin after losing so much to the cabs. Fighting the great temptation to sit down and bawl, she picked her suitcase up and thudded it down the stairs, back out to the street. Looking across campus she saw a pond and a grove of trees. It looked like an oasis to her. Dragging her heavy load she crossed the street and made her way to it, not sure why she was going there but feeling compelled to do so anyway.
Sinking down under a tree, she took in the beautiful setting and felt the first ray of hope since she’d left the airport. Realizing that she was very hungry, she pulled out the peanuts and package of cookies she’d saved from the airplane. As soon as she started eating, a few large birds that she later found out were geese practically attacked her trying to get her food. So she had to eat her meager meal standing up.
When the geese lost interest and wandered away, Ah Ni realized that she was exhausted. Maybe I’ll just lay my head down for a few minutes. She used her backpack as a pillow and put an arm protectively over her suitcase. She thought of home one more time and then entered a land that had no jets, trains or cabs and where her mother sang her lullabies.
When she woke up, a dog was licking her face and she was shivering and felt drenched with dew.
“Is that your dog?” She heard the voice before she saw who it belonged to. After pushing the dog away and sitting up abruptly, she noticed a tall man with blond hair and bright blue eyes standing over her. His clothes were sweaty in spite of the cool morning air. He was pulling the dog away and looking at her curiously, “Were you there all night?”
Ah Ni realized he was talking to her but couldn’t form the words. Still half asleep, she answered in Chinese. Looking confused he said, “Oh, you don’t speak English. What are you doing here?” he asked more to himself than to her.
Finally able to form a sentence, she responded. “I do speak English. I guess I fell asleep.”
“I’ll say you did. You look like you’re about to have ivy grow over you. Why did you sleep here?”
“I got in too late to make it into the Foreign Affairs office. I didn’t know where else to go.”
“You shouldn’t sleep in the park. It’s not safe.”
She looked at him in annoyance. “I wasn’t planning to sleep here!” She wished he’d go away and leave her alone, but evidently that was too much to ask. The dog was tugging on her backpack, trying to see what was inside. She pulled it protectively toward her and scowled.
“I don’t know. I’m not awake yet.”
“I’m done with my jog. Why don’t we head over to Johnny’s Café and I’ll buy you breakfast.”
Everything in her told her that would be a crazy thing to do. Her mother would have a fit if she knew she was eating with a stranger on her first day in a new country, but her stomach growled at that moment sending all sense from her mind. “I have some money. I can pay.”
“Nope. This one’s my treat. I just got paid and the car payment’s not due for another week. If I don’t spend this money on something sensible it will be gone in no time.” He picked up her suitcase and she hoisted the backpack over her shoulder. She felt they must have made a rag tag pair, he in his sweaty clothes and she covered in dew, her pony tail askew. The dog wandered off to find something more interesting.
“So where’d you get in from?”
“Wow. I’ve always wanted to go to China. You know, to see The Great Wall and The Forbidden City and all that. Are they as amazing as everyone says?”
“I guess so. I’ve never seen them.”
He stopped and turned to look at her. “Why not?”
“I was always too busy studying. I went to The Forbidden City once because I had a student pass to get in half price, but I’d come on the wrong day and would have had to pay full so I didn’t go in.”
“That’s terrible. You didn’t have school field trips to any of those places?”
“Field trips? I don’t know what that means.”
“The teacher takes the class to see it as an educational outing.”
“Oh no. How could a teacher do such a thing? Cabs for so many students would be too expensive.”
The young man looked puzzled. “What about a school bus?”
“What is that?”
“The bus a school owns.”
“My school doesn't own a bus.”
He fell silent once again. “Here’s the restaurant. They have great coffee.” Then seeming to think better of it, he asked, “Do you like coffee?”
“I can drink it.”
Folding his arms in front of him he said, “That’s not what I asked. Do you like it?”
She wrinkled her nose and admitted, “Not very much.”
“They’ve got tea, too.”
“That would be wonderful.” Just the thought made her warm inside.
As they settled into the booth, he asked, “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Ah Ni,” he said studying her through lazy eyes. “I like that. It’s almost like the English name Annie. Maybe I’ll call you that.” He grinned and Ah Ni relaxed for the first time in days.
They both fell silent as they studied the menu. She didn’t recognize much of anything on it. Rice wasn’t even listed. Finally she decided on fried eggs, since she at least knew what that was. As she told the waitress her order, the woman scribbled something, then asked, “How do you want those eggs?”
Ah Ni looked confused as she glanced at the young man for help. “Over easy or sunny side up?” he questioned.
Ah Ni couldn’t possibly decipher what this meant so she just said, “Either one is fine.”
“Pancakes or toast?” the waitress added.
Again she looked across the table. “She wants pancakes,” said the man as if determining her future. “Trust me on this one, Annie.”
She nodded her head and ordered the tea with confidence.
When the waitress walked away, Ah Ni asked, “What is your name?”
“I can’t think of a Chinese name close to that one, so I’ll just have to call you Travis.”
“Okay with me. Lots of people do. So what are you doing in Redbud Corner?”
“I’m getting my master’s degree in English.”
“That’s why you speak so well. You’re easier to understand than most foreign students.”
This pleased Ah Ni a great deal. She grinned and asked, “Are you a student?”
“Was. Graduated two years ago. Now I work for the university. I live in the dormitory and manage student affairs there.”
The waitress returned with a cup and a small metal tea pot. Ah Ni was delighted to see it. She poured it out and sipped it eagerly. “Oh!”
“No, just different than Chinese tea. I didn’t expect that. There’s so much that is a surprise to me.”
“Well, I admire you. It takes a lot of guts to come half way around the world by yourself. Do you know anyone here?”
The food came and Ah Ni stared at the egg. It was so white. It didn’t look fried at all. And the yolk was runny. The whole thing looked disgusting. She didn’t know if she could choke it down but she knew she had to make an effort since Travis was paying for it. Her thoughts were interrupted. “Do you mind if I pray and thank God for the meal?”
Ah Ni shook her head. She didn’t have any idea what to expect. She knew Americans were often religious, but nothing more than that.
“Thank you, God, for bringing Ah Ni here. Help her to find a home quickly and make her adjustments smooth. Thanks for this food, in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
That wasn’t at all what Ah Ni had expected. She heard someone pray in a movie once and it was very formal and hard to understand. Travis sounded like he was talking to someone sitting at the table with them.
She took a bite of the egg and found it as disgusting as she thought. The pancake looked okay so she tasted that and loved it. “This is really good. I like these.” She was proud at how well she handled the fork and knife. She had practiced before coming.
“Told you. They have great pancakes. Don’t you want some syrup on them though?”
“What does it taste like?”
She drizzled a little over them and tasted it. Better yet! The day was looking up.