Mike Davis Meets Chinese Pen Pal

After 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.

 The 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.

It 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.

 In 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 reaction.   

However, 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 about himself. 

That was the beginning of a seventeen-year correspondence that finally lead to a face-to-face meeting in Washington in April.  

Over 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.  

Soccer 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 modernizations."    

In 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.  

Through 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. 

By 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, amazing.  

In 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.

 In 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.  

Mr. 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.   

Requests 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.) 

This 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". 

For 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." 

Mike works in the Generic Issues, Environmental, Financial, and Rulemaking Branch of NRR. After duty in the Air Force as a nuclear safety officer and six years at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia, he joined the NRC in 1979. He was a resident inspector at the Brunswick and Surry Plants before coming to Headquarters as a project manager in 1986.

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