Mike Davis Meets Chinese Pen Pal
17 Years of Correspondence
Mike, Others Aided "Amazing Man's" Work
By Mrs. Ann Thomas
"He's the most amazing man I've ever met." Those are strong words, but there is no doubt that Mike Davis of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation means them. And, indeed it's hard for anyone to hear the story of He Li-Yi -- and Mike's part in it -- and not agree.
story of He Li-Yi -- Mr. He -- is truly amazing.
He was born, about seven decades ago, in a remote mountainous
village in Yunnan Province in southwestern China. His life is the stuff of
novels -- a college education that became useless in the light of internal
politics, twenty years of incredible struggle as the lowliest of peasants,
suddenly a change in fortune, a reincarnation as a professional teacher,
college educations for his sons, one book published in Britain, another
published in the United States, and the development of a network of
friends and supporters around the world. Talk about ups and downs!
Mike's involvement with Mr. He also is an amazing story that began in an amazing way, spurred by coincidence rather than design.
began not because of Mike's interest in China but because of his interest
in England! When Mike was on active duty with the Air Force years ago, he
was stationed in England and, during his tour there, developed a deep
fondness for the United Kingdom. Once
back in the States, it was only natural that he would subscribe to the In
Britain magazine, to keep his ties to the history and culture he had
enjoyed so much.
the March 1983 issue of In Britain, Mike read a brief letter to the editor
from Mr. He, who identified himself as a middle school teacher in the
Peoples Republic of China. Mr.
He told the magazine's readers how much his students enjoyed the magazine
and how he hoped it would help them understand the importance of learning
the English language. Mike
found it an interesting letter, but it produced no other immediate
a few weeks later, while flying to Atlanta on the now defunct Eastern
Airlines, Mike read in the inflight magazine an article on the importance
of English and its future as the language of world commerce and industry.
Something Mr. He would find interesting, Mike thought, so he
clipped out the article and sent it to Mr. He, along with a short letter
was the beginning of a seventeen-year correspondence that finally lead to
a face-to-face meeting in Washington in April.
those seventeen years, Mike and Mr. He have learned a lot about one
another. In his first letter to Mr. He, Mike told about himself, his
education as a nuclear engineer, his wife, two children, their activities,
and his job. In return from
Mr. He, he received three large pages of
neatly printed but small characters, with information about himself
and a myriad of questions and requests.
means football, he noted, but are there differences between soccer and
football? How is it that his daughter is playing a game that is usually
for boys? Mike had written
about Norfolk as being in the United States, but Mr. He's dictionary said
it was in England. Could
there be two of them? And could Mike please share his knowledge of
English: "Correct my mistakes in my letter, criticize me seriously
like you do to your real brother. Always
remember to point out my shortcomings so that I'll be able to learn more
from you and finally, do a little more service for my country's
addition to exchanging letters, Mike has also sent to Mr. He countless
children's books that his children had finished and hundreds of tapes and
CDs, along with a subscription to National Geographic that he started in
1983 and a complete set of the Funk and Wagnall's encyclopedia, purchased
volume by volume through a neighborhood supermarket promotion.
correspondence with Mike and other English-speaking people around the
world, Mr. He has been able to bring to reality his fascination with
English that began at a very early age. His interest was fueled when he
met some American airmen
stationed in China during World War II. Mr. He found them very advanced in
their knowledge of the world, but hard to understand, a circumstance that
led to his decision to learn English and to become an English teacher. If
he knew English, he reasoned, he
could help the children from his native village learn much about the
world. But by the time he
graduated from Kunming Teacher's College in 1953, China and the Soviet
Union were staunch allies and English was out. Schools no longer taught
English and he was assigned to work in the Provincial Government.
1958 he was labeled a rightist and sent to a "re-education through
labor" camp for four years. When
he was finally released, he had no choice but to return to his native
village as a mere peasant, despite his college education.
The next twenty years were unbelievably difficult; "the
peasant's universal struggle to endure," he writes.
But, in 1978, national policy changed and the government set out to
correct some previous wrongs. Early in 1979 he became an official teacher
of English in a remote
mountain area middle school. After so many years of being away from his
chosen field, it was difficult to get back. But he was determined, and he
set out to find ways to make things better, including friendships with
sympathetic souls like Mike Davis. Through his hard work and
determination, he has gone on to an entrepreneurial life that is, yes,
the early 1980s, as Mr. He honed his English skills, he wrote his first
book, The Spring of Butterflies, a
collection of folk tales and legends about the Bai culture of his native
area and other minorities of China. It was published in England in 1984
and still is available (through Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, New
York). The profits from that
book helped put his oldest son through college.
1993 he published a second book, Mr. China's Son (Westview Press,
Colorado), the story of his life, unedited except for grammar, Mr. He
emphatically notes. This book helped fund his second son's education. Mike
notes that his pride in his sons' education is justified because in China
today only one percent of the population graduates from college.
He retired from full-time teaching in 1989.
For a while he trained guides and translated for a museum in his
home area and later taught English part time at Dali Teachers' College.
But his second book attracted so much attention that he gave up his
part-time career to answer the correspondence he receives and to take time
to meet new friends.
for meetings became so numerous that, with some help and encouragement
from "kind-hearted foreign friends," he opened a cafe in his
village of Dali, called, after his book,
Mr. China's Son Cultural Exchange Cafe. Besides serving as a sales
forum for his three books (the two previously mentioned plus a newly
released Dutch version of Mr. China's Son), the Cafe offers a host of
other goods and services, including guided tours, tour books to rent,
classes in the local dialect, typical Bai food (with special banquets or
birthday parties arranged on request), room reservation services and, oh
yes, for the traveller to remote China who can't stand being out of touch,
complete internet services. (To learn more about the amazing Mr. He, he's
just a click away at http://www.homestead.com/yndali/homepage2.html.)
spring, in conjunction with the publication of the Dutch version of his
book, Mr. He embarked on a world tour, visiting the United States,
Belgium, and Holland. Most of
his destinations in the United States were related to colleges and
universities, but he spent almost a week in the Washington-Norfolk area,
visiting for the first time with his old friend Mike Davis.
To read about Mr. He's experiences during this trip, go to his
website and click on the link labeled "Abroad Adventures".
Mike it was a wonderful experience, being able to finally meet Mr. He face
to face. Their days were busy
-- first touring all the traditional sights of the nation's capital, then
going to the Eastern Shore and meeting a couple who both were stationed in
China during World War II, and finally on to Norfolk to visit with Mike's
family. When they finally parted at National Airport, Mike says, "I
felt like I was saying good-bye to a family member.
He is truly a wonderful man, this son of Mr. China.
I hope to be able to see him again, someday, somewhere."
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