The Christmas Day air in Liumiao Village, a small community in Yanggu County of East China's Shandong Province, was filled with the high-octave whoops of laughter from excited children.
Their high jinks were centred around a donkey cart piled high with brightly wrapped presents, and ridden by Santa Claus.
"Merry Christmas!" "Happy New Year!" shouted the children at the grey haired figure in red, waving their homemade greetings cards above their heads.
For octogenarian US citizen Eunice Brock, December 25, 2004 was the sixth time she had spent at the small village in China dressing up as the fabled old man and giving gifts.
But her seasonal act is more than a labour of love - it's an annual event in her new home.
"Coming back to China, my birthplace, had long been my dream," said Brock.
Brock was born on August 11, 1917 in Beidaihe, a noted summer resort in North China's Hebei Province. Both her parents were Christian missionaries and they spent many happy summers in the family small house, and when the winter drifted south from Siberia, they moved to the warmer climates to a small village of Liaocheng in Shandong Province.
During the 1920s and 30s China was like a pinball - forever rebounding from one upheaval and war to the next. People were disparately poor. Eunice still remembers a three-year long famine that affected part of Shandong and neighbouring provinces.
"I saw the poverty and suffering of the people," she recalls. "One day a cartload of young girls wailing loudly passed along our street. I saw a father selling one of his children with tears in his eyes. I was told on cold winter nights of the beggars who froze to death in the temple next door where they had taken refuge."
Such sights had a lasting impression.
"These things made me feel very sad. I wanted so badly to help the people but as a child, I was unable to do anything. I was determined that when I grew up I would help the Chinese people. That dream never died," says the old woman with conviction.
In 1930, when she was 13, her family went to America on extended leave. When her parents returned to China, they left their five children behind to grow and enjoy the educational opportunities of the US.
After graduating from college, she decided on a nursing career. "I believed I could help the Chinese as a nurse," she says, revealing her reason that has governed both her working and love life.
"I once broke off my relationship with my then husband-to-be, Edwin. He was not interested in living in China," she says. "But I then experienced such loneliness I reestablished our relationship."
They had a long and meaningful life together for over 50 years. Edwin died on his 81st birthday on August 24, 1998.
However, throughout her marriage, she harboured dreams of returning to her birthplace, and over the decades she followed China's unfolding destiny with interest. In 1992 and long into their retirement, Edwin agreed to Eunice's idea of a two month holiday travelling around China. The trip left her with a deep impression of a country in rapid transition. And it rekindled with intensity the desire to return to her birthplace and work.
A dream comes true
"The dream - of going back to China to work - that I had laid aside now possessed me again," says Brock. She wrote to the China Youth Development Foundation (CYDF) declaring she would like to live and work in the poor village like that of her childhood. She told the CYDF she wanted to build a school.
In September 1999, she arrived in Beijing and met an CYDF official surnamed Chen (she forgets his full name), with whom she had been corresponding. Chen returned from Liaocheng Prefecture and told Brock the head of Liumiao Village would be willing to accept her. They met the village head surnamed Liu, who on her arrival showed Brock around the village. "He said a new school was not needed and asked if I would be willing to spend the money on computers for the primary school. Because of my age and because I was a foreigner, I knew that going to a very poor village was highly unlikely. The dialect in the village was the same as what I used as a child so I decided to live in Liumiao."
She settled down in a house with a big courtyard. The villagers tried to give her a comfortable living condition. Her home today is well-equipped with all necessities including a computer and Internet access.
She donated US$30,000 to the primary school to buy computers and set up a special classroom for computer education. She also bought books for the school library, musical instruments and sports equipment. She also bought books, papers and magazines to encourage the villagers to read about the world outside.
"This year, 2005, my project is to purchase an excellent set of books dealing with sex education from childhood through to old age," she says. She wants to give them to those who write Chinese text books for the schools.
"Eunice is an optimistic person and very humorous," says Wang Yuqing, a 23-year-old woman who has been living with Brock for four years, working as her interpreter.
"Eunice loves guests. Our home is like a small club in the village, where villagers, old and young drop in at any time," she says.
Life is busy but quite relaxed in the village. Brock enjoys gardening. She tore out most of the bricks and planted a multifarious flowerbed. She has made a series of gold-fish ponds with waterfalls. She gives seeds of flowers villagers who have shown a keen interest in gardening. Many come to visit her garden when it comes into full bloom.
Many have adopted her love for flowers. "I was so pleased to see two long streets were lined with blooming flowers this summer," she said.
Living in the village is not always convenient but can often be an interesting experience. Brock has a Chinese style toilet which is not the most convenient of conveniences for an 87-year-old. However, she has made a "special chair" so her bathroom now combines characteristics of East and West.
Guests to her home are amazed when they come back from using the bathroom...To make every space in her home interesting, she painted a lake with rocks, red-crowned cranes and pink water lilies. She bought a large mirror and placed it under the mural right against the wall, making for an enchanting reflection.
She built a bathroom flower bed and planted ferns and colourful begonias.
"I was very proud of the back of my toilet!" she jokes.
Living out the autumn of her life back in the place of her birth is both fun and endearing, says Brock.
"My four children are all very glad that in my 80s I am living my life's dreams. I wish I could get a green card. I am home, after all."
People's Daily Online
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