What happened when I sang Amazing Grace with an old Chinese man? Listen for yourself.

It happened at the beginning of the worst camping trip we have had yet. We were an hour and a half away from civilization by scooter, which always feels a lot further than if you had driven it by car. It was generally a beautiful day, but as we began the slow climb up the winding, shabby and narrow mountain road to the campsite, the temperature began to drop. The road became steeper and steeper even as the landscape gave way to beautiful vistas and magnificent overlooks.  Okay, so maybe when I say the “worst” camping trip we have had, I should mention that our worst weekend camping is better than the best day behind a desk. Anyway, there we were near the top of the mountain about 6 minutes away from the campsite.

Then it happened.

I felt my back tire jolt and slide sickeningly beneath me. I had blown a tire.

Now, I’ve blown many a tire. I’ve changed tires, I’ve patched tires, I’ve driven too far on donuts – I’ve dealt with my fair share of tire trouble. But this wasn’t just a hole. This was a blowout. A gaping gash in my back tire, a long way from home, up a mountain, surrounded by nothing but bamboo and mountain terrace farmers who almost certainly didn’t speak a lick of English.

Luckily, being so close to the campsite, we got on Kylie’s scooter and made it the rest of the way before I returned on her scooter alone to retrieve the campsite supplies from my scooter, so we could at least get the camp set up.

As we puttered into the mountaintop campsite crammed onto one scooter, we were greeted by what appeared to be the entire campground manager’s family. We had been there before and had previously received a warm welcome from the on-site manager, but this time there had to have been 10 people there all excitedly babbling away at us and about us in Mandarin Chinese.

With some pictures, creative charades, and google translate (which is massively helpful, but not nearly as helpful as one might think. I could write an entire blog post on that alone), we finally arrived at a solution to our tire problem. Unfortunately, because it was Saturday, the closest mechanics’ shops were all closed, so a gentleman of around 60 years old, who spoke just enough English to be able to say, “I don’t speak English”, offered to take me (there was only room for one) to load my scooter in his truck and haul it an hour and a half away to the nearest city of Zhudong to a mechanic.

To be clear, he asked $2000 ntd (about $60 usd) for the task, but for loading and unloading a scooter and an hour and a half of rough road, it was a pretty good deal. Not to mention another car of people rode behind us to help with the loading and unloading process. We had essentially disrupted an entire family’s evening, so looking back on it, I am incredibly grateful.  At the time, however, all I could think about was what a pain in the ass this was turning out to be. We had gotten up early in order to get to the campsite with enough time to set up camp and then go hike around the mountain for a bit, which was now out of the question. This tire process was going to take at least 4 hours, and it would certainly be well past dark when I got back.

But there was nothing else to be done. I climbed into this elderly gentleman’s truck and prepared myself for what was certain to be a nerve wracking drive down the mountain.

So, there I was, stuck in a truck alone with a very nice old man who didn’t speak any English, for an hour and a half ride. That’s when my inner adventurer really kicked in. I decided to make the best of the situation by using this as an opportunity to practice what little Chinese I knew.

Then it occurred to me – music – the universal language.

I asked him if he knew any English songs, and without hesitation, he broke into a Chinese cover of “you are my sunshine.” After which I sang the English version. We talked about Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson, and the Beatles.

As we passed a gaudy Daoist temple followed by a simple Christian church, the topic turned to religion. I asked him if he was a Christian. We have found that there is a surprisingly high population of Christians living way up in the mountains for some reason.

He said, “No no no”, he was Catholic. Despite my internal semantic objections regarding that distinction, I accepted his answer quietly.

And then he did something that I will never ever forget as long as I live.

In Chinese, in a deep baritone with the slow, warbling vibrato that comes only from age, he started singing Amazing Grace. Of course, being from the buckle of the bible belt, and being raised by staunch conservative Christians, this tune was highly familiar to me.

The melody brought back a wave of emotions and nostalgia.

I thought of my dear mother, whom I haven’t seen for many months. How many times had she spontaneously broken into a verse or two of Amazing Grace?

I thought of my grandmother and grandfather and their graceful ascent into old age, and how their health had been troubling them lately, a fact which did nothing to diminish their strong Christian faith and inner joy.

I thought of all the mistakes I had made over the years, all the shame and sadness I had brought to the people who have loved me more than I even loved myself.

I thought about how, regardless of my feelings on god and religion, whatever Amazing Grace had come to and through my parents and grandparents that allowed them to catch me and hold me up with unconditional love and forgiveness – that same grace found me here, in this moment, a million miles from home, in the middle of nowhere, with a man who couldn’t clearly communicate to me what he had for breakfast.

But he could sing.

And I could sing.

We could sing the same song, and share meaning, even if we couldn’t share the same words.

It was one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced in my life.

And I was able to record a little bit of it.

I hope it means as much to you as it means to me.

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