Crossing paths: Four find each other in China

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Even though they're a half a world from their home, four Lawrence County residents have found each other in Kunming, China.

Eric Alfrey, Coal Grove Class of 1980, Martha Kennedy Alfrey, Ironton High Class of 1980, Jeana Spurlock Fowler, Fairland Class of 1984 and Stephen Sark, South Point Class of 1985 all teach at the Kunming International Academy, though they all got there in different ways.

Sark went to China in 1993 to learn Chinese and teach English as a Christian English teacher.

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"I wanted to go make a difference in the world, to help China develop and to have a positive impact there and to do that through the avenue of teaching English," Sark said.

Eric Alfrey and wife Martha moved to the country in 2002. The two had been involved with a Christian elementary school outside of Memphis - Eric as a principal, Martha as a first-grade teacher.

"It was something that we had thought about and talked about for a long time," Eric said. "This opportunity came along in 2002, and we said 'Well, this is a good time, let's go.'"

The two sold their house in Mississippi, most of their possessions, and boarded a plane for Beijing, China. After a couple days of sightseeing, they went to their new home in Kunming.

"We speak very little Chinese, I can maybe understand one word here and there," Martha said. "So our first week was pretty overwhelming. I remember thinking 'My word, there are so many people.' There is never a time when you're alone in China."

China's massive population made even trips to familiar locales unusual, as evidenced by Eric's first trip to the massively crowded local Wal-Mart.

"I remember thinking, anybody back home would have thought this was the night before Christmas Eve, there were just so many people," Eric said.

The couple gradually adjusted, especially after Sark and his wife moved to Kunming in 2003 and the group finally found some friendly faces.

Although they're often marked as 'different' by locals, Sark said it has given him an appreciation of how a foreigner feels in a strange land. That alienation, however, has also allowed him some more freedoms in his day to day life.

"We've had the ability to have more control over how we conduct ourselves as a family," Sark said. "When the Chinese people assume that you're going to be different then when you do make your own decisions then it's not a problem because they already think 'Oh, you're the crazy foreigners, no matter what you're going to do things are going to be strange.'"

Now the tables have been turned. As the U.S. natives returned for a family visit in Lawrence County, they were surprised by just how strange their homeland had become after a three-year absence, said Sark's wife Patty, whom he married in China.

"Life in China just moves more slowlyŠwe come back to America and life is just faster, fast food is faster, speed limits are faster, peer pressure, what you see on television, everything is just in your face," Patty said. "I can't wait to China and get out of everybody's face."

Although their families are still in Lawrence County, and they visit regularly, none of the China transplants maintain a regular residence in the States.

"The only residence we have [in America] is a storage room in Mississippi," Martha Alfrey said with a laugh.

The four have now returned to Kunming, and still rely on each other, for no matter how many years they live in China, they'll always be a group of foreigners in a strange country, alone Š but together.