I received some bad news shortly before Christmas. Niu niu, who was my “host father” when I was living in China last summer, passed away, at age 61. (Important Note: I created this blog with the intention of telling stories about my China experiences, so normally I wouldn’t mention things of such a person nature, but Niu niu was such a significant part of my China experience that it seemed appropriate). A few months ago the doctors discovered that he had cancer, and in November he had surgery to remove it. The surgery was successful and he had been home recovering. But he also had a heart condition, and died of a heart attack suddenly in early December.
Luckily I had the chance to see him one more time when I first returned to Beijing last September. On a crisp fall day I traveled out to his apartment on the edge of the city, where sprawling apartments and the massive Capital Iron & Steel mill meet a small village at the foot of the mountains. Last summer I spent a lot of time hiking with Niu niu in those mountains, but since was not in any condition to be hiking now, I had to go that day alone. It was a beautiful day and the colossal view of the steel mill from the mountains was just as I remember it. As a result of these hikes, I wrote an article for an online news organization called GlobalPost last summer, about the water pollution and scarcity problems that I had observed, and that Niu niu had told me about.
When I arrived at the bus station to meet Niu niu that evening, I could see right away that his health had deteriorated. We went to his apartment and had a good conversation, catching up on the past year. So far niu niu is the only person I’ve ever really gotten to know solely through communication in another language (he can speak about 5 words of English). Then we ate dinner with his wife and daughter, and his wife commented on how my Chinese had improved. This was encouraging, as I’d rarely heard her complement anybody.
As I was leaving, Niu niu told me to come and visit every once in a while, “yinwei women shi pengyou,” (because we are friends) was one of the last things I remember him saying to me.
In the two months that I lived with him, Niu niu taught me a lot about life in China, especially for the more rural, working class citizens that many foreigners rarely interact with. He was a good friend, and he will be sorely missed.