The next five or six villages appear in my memory only as somewhat of a blur. The traditional architecture, gaunt chickens and mangy dogs running around in the streets, and the grinning faces of those we met became standard observations as we went about our work.
I won't say that at this point I was used to my surroundings. That would imply a degree of comfort and a dulled sense of awe. I guess you could say that the discomfort I felt was exciting because it pushed the posh American lifestyle far from my mind. I wasn't here to be served, but to serve, and to tell of the One who gave up his heavenly dwelling to make his home on a destitute earth.
In the distance, as we left Village 7, I saw a cloud of dust rising from the road, moving toward us a little at at time. Pretty soon, the cloud dissipated and a band of children on bicycles appeared before us, pedaling their way home from school. They didn't stop in their tracks, but as each of them rode past, they did their best owl impressions to get a few last looks us.
We heard brakes squeal behind our backs. Some of them had stopped in the road to stare at us as we walked away. Our presence was too abnormal for them to simply disregard. This shattered the routine. This would be the talk of the school and the villages for days to come.
We turned to face them, and Steve hit them with the secret weapon.
"Ni hao!" he shouted.
The crowd of youngsters erupted with giggles. Steve might as well have sent a jolt of electricity into their little bodies, as their bashful curiousity instantly morphed into overt excitement. When their laughing spell was over, their wide eyes asked what their gaping mouths couldn't: Did those men really speak to us in our own language?
It took a few more "Ni hao's" from us to win their trust, but they finally realized they could return the favor. "Hello!" a few of them yelled. Undoubtedly, they had learned a few English phrases at school, and they were delighted to be able to use them so soon.
One little boy, who looked to be about 7 or 8 years old, stepped out of the crowd and called out, "I like you!" Surprised, Steve looked over at me, his eyes displaying the same excitement we had seen in their faces when we spoke their language.
"Did you hear that?" he said, laughing.
"Yeah," I answered.
"I like you too!" Steve said, shaking his head in bewilderment and calling after the boy, who had walked back over to rejoin his buddies.
As we waved goodbye to our little friends, I couldn't help thinking of Jesus' words in Matthew 19:14, "Let the little Children come to me and do not hinder them; for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these."