Today I visited a friend in a nursing home. As I sat at her side, while she talked to everyone around me - she didn't remember me at all - I looked at her and thought about when I first started making friends in nursing homes.
It was back in Neihu, Taiwan. I met a girl who was a member of the church from the Philippines who worked at a nursing home. I stopped by one day to check on her but realizing that her workplace was no place to be receiving visitors, I volunteered my services. Even when the girl returned to her home, I stayed on, one hour every Monday. I look back now and wonder what those workers must have thought of me - an American girl with elementary school kid Mandarin Chinese visiting nursing home residents? Most of the residents didn't speak Mandarin - that was actually the first time that I ever officially heard someone speak Hakka - and so often there was little I could do besides smile at them or sit by their side with my hand on their arm, to let them know that I was there and that I cared about them. Oh, and sing to them.
As a missionary, I always had a hymnal on me. However, since this was Taiwan, most of the residents were not Christian or familiar with anything Christian. I would sing to them the non-traditional songs in hopes they would just think I was singing a nice song. (I always avoided Israel, Israel, God is Calling though; according to my native colleague, that tune was the same as a traditional Taiwanese funeral song)
I also knew one Chinese folk song, Mo Lia Hua (茉莉花） or Jasmine Flower, that I had learned in middle school. I couldn't remember all the words when I first started singing that to the residents - I would start it up and they would chime in and sing the entire song with me. And then I'd get quiet on the few lines I couldn't remember and try to mimic what they were saying. To this day, I'm still not sure that I got it right. (I just looked it up -- I was off on one word.) People told me later that this song has come to express anti-war sentiment so I always wondered what those residents thought of me singing that song. No one complained, though. Everyone stopped what they were doing and listened. Many smiled. Some sang along.
After the singing, I would go around to the residents who could speak Mandarin and chat with them for a few minutes. To the residents who only spoke Taiwanese, I would attempt a few butchered sentences. To the residents who only spoke Hakka, I would just smile and pat their arm. One resident was deaf and so I used my extremely limited vocabulary in Chinese Sign Language to ask her about her family and how she was doing. It wasn't until years later that I realized she might have gone deaf later in life so she possibly never learned how to communicate in Chinese Sign Language. But since I couldn't write in characters, hand waving and smiling seemed to be the only way to talk with her.
I did become fairly good friends with a few of the residents. One of the women insisted that my colleague and I take a picture with her and her friend. We did so - I still have that picture of us. A few weeks later, we returned and she was tickled pink over something. We asked her about it. "Oh, my son visited me yesterday and saw the picture of us. He asked, 'Ma, who are these people?' I told him, 'Those are my American friends.' He was jealous then, 'Ma, you sit in this nursing home all day and yet you have more American friends than I do - how did you ever meet them?'" Her response to that was cheeky: "They come to visit me, speaking of which you could stand to come by more often. Come by sometime on a Monday and I'll introduce you."
It was the beginning of a new habit. Even if I don't remember them - even if they don't remember me. It means so much to them to have someone to visit. It means so very much to me.