I forced my tired eyes open and caught sight of a twelve-year-old boy stepping up to bat in a baseball game. My thoughts quickly returned and I found myself back in my place on first base covered in dirt stains. The young boy before me was named Ye Xiu Wen. His family belonged to our church congregation and I was assigned once a week to visit with his family and provide food, care, and other support. Every time I would greet Ye Xiu Wen with an enthusiastic greeting in Mandarin Chinese, “Hello, my friend, how’s it going?” I would only receive a blank stare and a slow head-nod in response, evidence that my words had once again failed to produce any meaning. I quickly found the language to be a barrier in building up a relationship with this young man, but one day made great strides when I discovered his love for baseball.
I had found an old orange beginning to rot in the bottom of my backpack. I removed the moldy mess and tossed it to Ye XIu Wen in a joking gesture. He caught the orange and pitched it right back at me. I grabbed it and this time wound up in an exaggerated mimic of the pitchers you would usually see on TV. Ye Xiu Wen didn’t miss a beat and grabbed a nearby stick and immediately wound up for a swing. I didn’t think he would actually hit it, so I pitched the orange directly his way. I was wrong. His contact sent exploding remains of my orange in every direction leaving behind a cloud of citrus. Our eyes met and lit up. It was the first time we communicated. We quickly converted the neighboring rice field into a baseball diamond and made a weekly tradition of playing backyard ball, inviting all the local children to join us in our competitions. Today was game day and as Ye Xiu Wen approached the plate my competitive nature took over. I was ready.
Knees bent, back arched, broken pool stick in hand this kid stood poised and ready for action. The pitch was made and yesterday’s edition newspaper - wadded into a ball and, bound in duct tape - went hurling towards the batter. A giant swing followed by contact sent our makeshift baseball high into the air. I took off towards the pile of rice stocks that marked second base, laughing all the while at the comical sight before me. The wind was in our favor and carried Ye Xiu Wen’s hit to the far outskirts of the rice fields. I could now hear his excited footsteps close behind me as I rounded second, my black shoes collecting new stains with every step. It was so refreshing, the humid air running across my face, my perfectly combed hair now rebelliously running free in the wind, and my new friend and I united in our sprint home. After rounding the bases safely I turned back to find my teammate in a struggle for home plate. His skinny legs, crafted from a simple rice-based diet, were in full stride, propelling that little body home. A dramatic final step was made casting up a patch of dirt. Through the cloudy aftermath the call was made: “Safe!”
I looked over to see the stern, determined face melt and give way to laughter. It was the first time I had ever seen him laugh. Such a small, seemingly insignificant image, yet it was one that resonated and burned within me. For the first time since I had arrived, I finally felt like I belonged. Ye Xiu Wen was no longer himself, no longer a young boy with a dream to be the first in his family to graduate high school, no longer a boy with the burden of taking care of a single, disabled, and bed ridden father and two sisters, no longer a boy with the responsibility for providing for his family’s financial needs, no longer the boy laughed at in school for the deformities on his face. No, he had risen above all that and in the moment he was a baseball player.