Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Unexpected Encounters

About two hours after arriving at the banquet, my energy level was starting to fade. It wasn't that the conversation around my table hadn't been enjoyable or that the first portion of the presentations weren't inspiring. I did enjoy meeting the other people seated at my table and I had been uplifted as I listened to the director of IFI talk about the mission and vision of this volunteer organization, created to meet the needs of international students studying in the U.S.  Still, as I sat among 700 other IFI partners, with a full belly after a delicious meal, the fatigue that I had been combating with caffeine all week resurfaced in a powerful way. My eyelids began to droop and I felt a twinge of guilt as I tried to discreetly glance at the program to determine how much longer the banquet would last.  
“One more speaker left,” I thought, reading the program. Thus far, I estimated that each person who took the stage had spoken or performed for about 15 minutes. “We’re almost finished, then" I concluded.
But when the man on stage started to introduce the next speaker, I realized that I was wrong.

"And now for our keynote speaker... " he began.
“Keynote speaker? I thought the speech from the program director was the main event. This banquet is going to last much longer than I thought…”  The fight against my fatigue was getting harder and harder. I tried to telepathically plead with the serving staff to offer some after-dinner coffee, but it was to no avail.  Then, suddenly, the gentleman on the stage continued introducing the keynote speaker with one simple phrase that jolted me more than even a shot of espresso could have.

L is a professor at P University, one of China’s most prestigious institutions…” he announced, as he listed many of her accomplishments.
Instantly, I perked up. My husband, sitting in front of me, must have felt the same burst of energy. He whipped around and stared at me with wide eyes and a look of disbelief, as if to say, “The keynote speaker is from P University? The P University? The very campus we have walked and biked on hundreds of times? The school where we celebrated our first Christmas a married couple, and the place we met with both Chinese and American friends on a regular basis for three years?”
Miraculously, every ounce of tiredness dissipated. My attention was now fixated on the Chinese woman standing on the stage facing a ballroom full of people.  I hung on her every word as she described the life events that brought her to the U.S for college several years ago, her experiences with IFI as an international student, and her life now as a well-known and respected professor at P. University. I sat in awe as she described her M.O. and ultimate purpose, which were so similar to what mine had been as a former teacher in China. My eyes filled with tears as she cycled through a series of pictures of her and her students on their university campus. For the rest of the banquet attendees, the background of these pictures portrayed unfamiliar Chinese buildings. But for my husband and me, they were pictures of a place that had been our home for three of the best years of our lives.
I have no idea how long she spoke. Thirty minutes? Forty? I couldn't tell you. However long it was, it wasn't enough. I wanted to hear more.  
The crowd of people that circled around her at the end of the banquet was worth wading through just to have a few more precious moments with L. A burst of glee erupted within my heart when I discovered that we shared a handful of mutual friends. Though L and I had never met on campus, even though we may have unknowingly crossed paths, she knew some of my best friends!
As we chatted briefly about common connections, I could feel the crowd of people around me growing impatient, as they slowly, but noticeably, inched closer to L. Sadly, I realized that my individual time with her had to come to an end. But I would see L one day again. Of this I was certain. We were, after all, sisters, connected by our spiritual like-mindedness and the sharing of a place we have, at one point, both called “home.”